About War - On the Subway
astounding is how few Americans talk about Iraq. Except at demonstrations or
with friends whose political viewpoints are known, there's a blanket of silence
shrouding the topic. Here's an
Saturday, early evening. On the New
York City subway. I'm reading in the
New York Times about US troops entering Baghdad.
the F line, has an unusual configuration of seats. They offer some privacy.
Some of the seats face towards the aisle. Others are doubles that face either forwards or backwards. Thus there's a corner where, if you get a
window seat, you can sit reading, feeling, if not cozy, at least unjostled by
the crowd. I'm ensconced in just such a
seat with my backpack occupying the seat next to me.
voice with a slight accent (was it Chinese?) asks, "Is this seat
I nod yes and transfer my backpack from the seat to my lap, I flash a glance at
the stranger sitting down besides me. I
register petite, probably Chinese, though I'm not sure. She could be Japanese or Korean. I can't guess her age. Seventeen?
Twenty-two? All of these
thoughts zip through my mind. Then, I'm
back reading about humvees and dead Iraqis.
a gentle, almost inaudible, voice she asks, "How's the war going?"
is unusual. Since the invasion began,
it's the first time a stranger has initiated a conversation about THE WAR.
turn towards the young woman by my side.
I wonder how to answer. For me,
the war is an atrocity, one ghastly slaughter after another. But I want to leave open the possibility of
an exchange. Guardedly, I say,
"Depends upon your point of view."
laughs, "I know what you mean."
Then, with a slight gesture of dismissal, "I don't care about the
try not to look shocked. I know this is
the moment that I could say something non-committal and turn back to reading my
newspaper. Instead, I say quietly and
as neutrally as possible, "I do care about the war."
must have heard the emotion in my voice.
She adds, "I don't like the killing." Clearly we both are aware of the delicacy of
the moment. We glance sideways at each
other, talk slowly, carefully weigh our words.
"You see if it were India attacking Pakistan, I would also care, but since
I pay taxes to the US government, I care more."
non-defensively, she says, "I pay taxes too." Ah, I think watch those assumptions. She's older than I thought. She adds, "There was another way. There should have been another way. More diplomacy."
realize now that I had misunderstood her when she said she didn't care about
the war. She meant I don't like
it. I concur, "Yes, there was a
chance for diplomacy to work."
"I mean this is …barbaric."
"Yes, like Neanderthals bashing each other on the head with stones."
stones appear to be too much for her.
She says, "It's better not to think about it."
quiet for a moment, sitting side by side, hurtling along underground. We're delicately struggling to cross an
enormous divide. There's the divide
between utterly different cultures, the divide of complete strangers, the
divide of age. Definitely she's young
enough to be my daughter.
it's happening on a crowded New York subway.
I'm oblivious to the stations that come and go, the opening and closing
of doors, the press of crowds. It seems
very important to keep alive the thin thread of the conversation.
continues, "If you think about it, you either get hysteria or
wonder about that word, 'hysteria.'
It's so old-fashioned, so 19th century.
Straight out of a Jane Austen novel.
What does she mean?
hard," I murmur.
had a nightmare," she says.
"I woke up in the night, terrified. I thought the roof was falling…that a bomb had hit the building
and I walked around the apartment looking to see what it was." Laughing softly, turning awkwardly towards
me, "It was a dream. It was
by this confession, I, quietly, "Hmmm, that sounds scary." Now I feel the moment is too intimate. I pull back; say nothing for a few moments.
makes a little half-gesture towards the part of the subway car we're facing,
"There's no security, now."
I've had several conversations with friends where we've shared how we now look
around at the people in the subway car and think, What would it be like to die
with these people, to spend our last moments with this particular set of
a thought that comes from the place of knowing New York City is an el primo
target; a subway could be a very nasty place to be. You pick out someone by whose side you would prefer to be - in an
that African-American woman who's sitting catty-corner from her daughter,
chatting and giggling? They're
arm-wrestling. (The mother's capacious
pocketbook is the table on which their elbows rest.) Perhaps, the elderly man across the aisle intently reading sheet
say to my new acquaintance, "I know."
"It's better not to think about it.
You know, live your life. It
doesn't really matter what happens."
I say laughing, "You're a philosopher."
laughs too, protests, "Oh no."
looking off into the sea of knees and feet and backs of strangers, "You know in most spiritual traditions
the point is too reach the place you've reached. Enjoy this moment and forget about everything else."
smiles. We sit silently, rocketing
through the dark subway tunnel.
reaches out again, "There's SARS."
She raises her arm and makes a little gesture of descent. "You know it's as if the world is going
down." Then, as an afterthought,
"I'm lucky I'm not fully Chinese. I'm Chinese, Japanese and Indian."
so I wasn't being a racist when I couldn't tell her ethnic background. "Do you think the Chinese are more
yes, they die much faster…"
do? I mean I knew SARS started in
China, but I hadn't heard..."
whenever I eat I'm very careful. I look
around me to see who is close."
She touches her finger to her nose.
"The breath. . ."
sure she's misinformed on this point and I'm appalled at her fear.
I remember a similar thought has crossed my mind in recent days. I have a good friend, a young Chinese woman,
who does organizing against sweatshops.
She's with Chinese textile workers every day. I've wondered, Is she more at risk for catching this dread
disease? Should I refrain from kissing
her on the cheek, as I always do, when I see her each week at yoga? Then, I decided no, absolutely not. I'm not going to live my life hemmed-in by
such fear. Of course, I will kiss her.
the first time in about twenty minutes I notice a subway stop. It's the one before my stop. "I think the next stop is mine."
delicate moment, this contact of several cultures, two strangers, two women is
about to break. This oddly vulnerable
and intimate connection with a person I will never see again is about to pass.
putting on my wool hat, stuffing the Times into my backpack, zipping the
zipper. I don't want to leave. How am I to end this conversation? "I've enjoyed talking with you…"
As soon as I utter the words, they sound trite. Then, almost silly, playfully, "Let's be sure to enjoy our lives,
this minute, every minute…"
I stand up to go, she says, "Have a good weekend."
back towards her, I stand by the subway doors waiting for them to open. I feel awkward and slightly sad. It's odd to have our encounter end with so
little ceremony. I wonder if she's
looking at my back or already reading the book I had noticed clasped in her
hand. (I had tried to see the title,
thinking; if I turn back to have one more moment of visual contact and if she
were looking away I would feel disappointed.
I could step off the train and not look back, not risk the
doors open. I turn back towards the
seat where she's sitting. She's looking
right at me. I send her a big smile. She smiles back. We wave at each other.
step off the subway.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based
in New York City. She can be reached at