A big crowd of us was waiting for the E train in Jamaica a couple of days ago. They’d opened the doors, unlocked the turnstiles and we poured in diverted from the Long Island Railroad. Though I have passed through Queens a couple of hundred times or more throughout the years, other than JFK, I have only stood on solid ground in Queens three times that I can remember: two funerals and one bar mitzvah.
People were grumbling. I stood next to a tall handsome middle-aged man with a very expensive haircut who was truly pissed.
“I could have taken a limo,” he said looking around him with contempt.
“An hour!” I heard someone else cry out indignantly.
Jamaica, which is a few stops away from Penn Station if you are riding the railroad, is a long way to the city if you are taking the E Train in.
And here it was… The E. We crammed our way in. I saw the handsome man shove someone out of a seat and sit himself down, scowling. When the door closed, I was standing with a group around a pole, holding on.
Six of us: myself, three younger women, in their twenties all chatting with a boy-man, a little pudgy with baggy jeans and very large feet. He was mostly talking to someone behind me.
The boy had the sweetest face, beatific really. When I looked at him and smiled, he gave me a little windshield wiper wave, as children do. I wondered which of the women was his mother. It looked more likely that they were older sisters.
I turned around. Holding on in back of me was, someone who might have inhabited the sideshows of my childhood in the tent next to Mississippi Flo, the fattest woman in the world.
This woman wasn’t fat. She was about my height, maybe a little shorter, and her hair was normal, straight and brown. It was all I could do not to turn away. Her skin looked like it had been boiled. It was covered in welts and powdered to hide its redness. One eye was permanently shut, yet she was smiling. Her teeth were caved in and there was more than one row of them on top. Her one good eye was buried deep in its socket. I knew in a flash everyday people must look at her in horror. The very opposite of the way people look at a beautiful person, but she had great composure, this woman hanging on to the pole. With such a face, she was used to embarrassment, used to God knows what. I was determined not to turn away.
“Is the boy you are talking to as sweet as he looks?” I asked her.
She smiled. “He’s an angel!” she declared. By now I was getting used to the way she looked.
We counted the stops together, the girls, the boy, the woman and I. When we were at ten stops still alas, in the heart of Queens, I remembered an incident in my childhood. I was about the angel boy’s age: the awkward stage when childhood and puberty each have something not so attractive to display in the body. Like the little boy, I had endured a pudgy stage. And my father who was fat, used to tell me I was fat.
One day, things began to change; I sort of had a waist. I went to school in a brand new jumper that buttoned up the front. It was a black watch plaid and I had a nice crisp white cotton shirt underneath it. When I looked in the mirror I was certain I was no longer a freak. Or even close to a freak. My sister had even in a rare show of comradeship rolled my dark curly mass into something resembling real hair. Not dark hay.
I was sitting behind a boy named John, JB he called himself, whom I had a crush on. I sat down and he turned around, and I waited expectantly.
I was nine years old. JB looked at me, glanced down and told me he wouldn’t go out with me if I were the last girl in the world. He said it in those words. And to this very moment, I’ll never forget how it felt.
The woman sharing the pole with me had never outgrown her ugly duckling stage. It would take a certain amount of greatness just to come to terms with that. And not be destroyed.
We had reached Manhattan by this point. Civilization! East 50th. I remembered from other lives that I could walk across the platform and get the B train and not even have to go to Penn Station where I’d just be heading uptown once again.
I said goodbye to the happy group discussing where they were going to have dinner before the Billy Joel concert.
I thought then, the pitiful looking woman was the real angel. I can see her in my mind’s eye, her boiled face, her three rows of top teeth, and what shines through is her good spirit, her calm vibration.
In my mind’s eye she’s flapping her puffy angel wings.by