While I was on my way back to New Jersey from New York City, I sat next to a retired cop on the train. He began the conversation by asking me where I was going. “Somewhere in Jersey?” he guessed.
“Yeah,” I responded, a smile curling on my face. He was a nice old man, clad in a navy suit. To the right side of his legs, crouched beneath the window was a black suitcase.
“Are you Indian?” he asked.
“Pakistani,” I responded, and immediately he apologized, correcting himself. I told him not to be sorry, it happens. I don’t mind being called Indian.
“I just wish Pakistan and India would just get along,” he said. “You share many similarities in family. Been to both places, both were beautiful.” His eyes lightened up, reminiscing. “You know, I was just at a comedy show with a Pakistani comedian up in the Village. And boy, that guy was so funny, had me cracking up. One of his jokes was about what his parents wanted him to be when he grew up. He lists them, he goes, 1. Doctor, 2. Engineer, 3. Lawyer, 4. Al-Qaeda, and 5. Comedian.”
A laugh bubbled out of each of us, as it was a very accurate representation of how badly Pakistani, Indian, and Middle Eastern parents alike desperately construct their children’s future to make sure they don’t end up in the arts. Because nothing is worse than growing up to become a comedian. It’s like growing up to be the joke.
“You know,” the man continued, “I’ve even seen hijabi comediennes. Women. Actually, more females than men sometimes at these New York comedy clubs which was very surprising. They have more freedom to talk about whatever they want here.”
He then told me about a Korean girl he dated a while back. He asked her what her parents would think about her dating a white man. “She says to me, she goes, ‘They would say that as long as he’s not Japanese, it’s okay.'”
I was surprised at how worldly this man appeared to be. He said that traveling was his best teaching tool. He said that he knows a boy who’s 25 years-old. “Kid’s a big baby,” he said, bluntly. “I says to him, since you’re a horn dog, you’re a musician, and you like to travel, why not do ESL? He said he doesn’t know the languages,” and laughed, waving his hands in the air as if he was mocking the most ridiculous thing in his life. “I says, YOU’RE NOT THERE TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE, you’re there to teach English!” I told him that one of my cousins actually teaches ESL, primarily in Southeast Asia.
“It’s a really good way for people to mature,” I said.
“Yeah, well I honestly don’t know. I worry about the kid,” he said.
Newark Liberty International Airport was approaching.
“Going to France tonight.”
“Really?” I inquired during the last few minutes of our conversation. “Where?”
“Bordeaux,” he replied. “I have a house there. That’s what you do when you retire. You buy houses everywhere you can. I’ll be there about a month. I love, LOVE French cuisine. Plus, you can get any type of cuisine you want as well. Indian, Chinese, Italian. It’s beautiful.”
As he stepped off the train, I wished him a safe journey and watched him pull his suitcase as he waved goodbye to me over his shoulder. For some reason, I felt like I knew him as a friend even though we had only talked for fifteen minutes.
And then I started thinking about people I had known for more than 15 minutes. People I’ve shared my thoughts and my body with, but who keep their distance. People who don’t let me know whether or not they are really my friends.
During my conversation with that old stranger, I felt like I could have told him my darkest secrets and he would have understood. Not many people really do understand me. They have seen parts of me they like, and they encrypt those moments with parts of me that they dislike, creating one of the most capricious, misunderstood monsters. For example, they see my whip-like, loose cannon reactions. My introversion. My stubbornness to never change who I am for other people. My taste for humility, my lust for an organic life, sought with a clear mind. A happy heart. A wild soul.
I thought about the men I’ve met, the younger ones akin to the 25 year-old baby that came up in my conversation. I’ve noticed that many of the men I’ve encountered exhibit narcissistic personality traits…even worse, they exhibit antisocial personality traits. The criminal kind. There is insufficient evidence to determine how they feel about me. I usually know them to be attracted to the illusion of grandeur, an inflated ego that naturally tugs at their heartstrings, caresses their intrigue. For boys like that Big Baby, it’s guaranteed bait. And I really don’t judge them. Rather, I’ve viewed their actions as benign. Which doesn’t necessarily mean I view everything positively, but I definitely don’t view anything negatively.
If this train ride had taught me anything, it was that I should know my worth. Because new people will come along and they will give me that feeling of belonging that I won’t have to search for in others. Validation isn’t even my prerogative.
Moving forward, 300 mph.
My stop is next.