My godmother M., from whom I take one of my names and most of my subversion, used to tell the best stories, usually about her run-ins with people whom she considered “dolts.” First she’d settle in at our kitchen table, kicking off her shoes and tucking her feet beneath her. Next she’d light a cigarette and take a long, theatrical drag while shaking out her thick black wig and eyeballing my mother, who’d quit smoking but still luxuriated in the secondhand smoke. Then, only then, would M. start her stories. Invariably they’d begin like this: So here’s this bird…
Today I have a story that begins exactly the same way. I’ll tell it like M. would. Pretend this pen I’m puffing on is a cigarette.
So here’s this bird, and she’s spoiling for a fight. I can tell right off the bat, and honest to Godfrey, I can tell I might give it to her. I’ve been feeling off all day, partly because of the indecency of this New York weather. Partly because I have worries that have just about hit the boiling point.
It’s rush hour, and the subway is packed but there’s one side of the bench that still has an empty seat. It’s empty in that way you get when the people sitting are either unusually large or unusually selfish, catch my drift? As it happens, one of the women is large and one of the women is selfish. The large woman has beautiful purple hair and a calm expression. The selfish woman’s face is screwed up with this, like, prefab fury.
I know the type. I’m not in the mood to eat any shit she’s serving. And my dogs are tired.
I say, “May I sit, please?” I’m polite enough. You know me. Pretty much always polite unless someone else isn’t. (I ash a cigarette into a blue glass dish by my side.) The purple-haired lady smiles and moves aside as much as she can. The other lady, she ignores me. Spreads her legs, in fact. I think– hoo boy. We’ve got a womanspreader on our hands. So I sit down anyway, squeezing in between the two of them.
Well, the womanspreader loses it.
“Oh, no,” she says. “This bitch. All sweaty, practically sits in my lap.”
I’ll tell you, doll. That bit about me sweating is true. It’s muggy outside, for cripe’s sake. But it’s not like I’m wearing no deodorant. And it’s not like she’s a paragon of hygiene. She’s sweating worse than me. So I look at her and pull out my signature move: I bat my eyelashes.
The womanspreader goes all bats in the belfrey. She leaps out of her seat and goes to stand over her sons, who are sitting on the other side of the pole dividing this bench. She’s looking at me but she’s ranting at them. “That cunt,” she goes. “That fucking cunt. Kicks me out of my seat.”
By now, I’m wondering if she’s going to sock me.
Let me just say this. It’s been a long summer of extremely shitty proportions. A dirty, hot, wet towel that makes you fantasize about a real ozone layer, right? Just before I’d gotten on the train platform, I’d be thinking about how I’d been living in the city for as many years as I’d been on the planet when I’d moved here. I’d been thinking, Why is this still so hard? And now this–this bird pulling nutty territorial shit on me.
No doubt she’s confusing me, you know, with my blond top knot and round sunglasses, for one of these fancy waifer types who’ll back down. I don’t like those waifers any more than she does. But does this make me sympathize with her? (I take another drag of my cigarette and check if you’re still listening.) It does not. The rest of us long-timers aren’t acting like dingbats. I’m thinking: Here’s this bird and she has no excuse.
So I push it.
I say, “You’re talking like this in front of your kids? Some example you’re setting.” Now I’m really wondering if she’s going to hit me. Calling out her child-rearing is grounds for a beating, everyone knows that. And I’m saying this in a quiet, prissy voice that very well may put this broad over the edge. But I’m too pissed to back down.
She hisses like a snake, I swear to God. She says, “Do me a favor, you fucking bitch. Shut your fucking mouth.”
By now, everyone on the L train—-this wilted salad of old and new Brooklyn—is staring at us. “I’d be happy to do you a favor,” I say, smiling like a fucking bitch, a fucking cunt, actually. “You just gave me your seat.”
There’s a long silence, while the woman probably weighs the police record she already has. Mind you, I say this because of nothing except she’s a woman who calls other women fucking cunts on the subway in front of her kids.
Well, smoke is still pouring out of her ears when I look over at this other lady, wearing bright green eye shadow and standing with three grocery bags. I say, “There’s plenty of room. You wanna sit down?” The third woman sits down, like immediately, and we three birds—purple hair, green eyeshadow, round glasses–start laughing like there’s no tomorrow. When the angry bird gets off, we laugh even harder. Then we start retelling the story as if it happened thirty years ago and we’re old friends instead of it all happening thirty seconds ago and here we’ve never met before. This is a thing I love among us life-timers, actually. (I take another long drag, contemplatively.)
So help me God, by the time I get to my stop I feel better, I really do. And now I’m sitting here at your kitchen table, puffing on a cigarette, fine as fine can be. And I’m telling you this. I’m saying, So here’s this bird…