Taking the Airtrain from JFK into Manhattan is a pleasant connection but logistically challenging for anyone who has not yet done it once or twice. There are a variety of exits from your terminal with a variety of signs all placed where only a mind reader on a gurney would see them. The Airtrain logo itself is misleading.
The conceptual fusion between a directional arrow and the nose of a jet is confusing and will send a weary traveler far afield. In early December, I watched a flustered foreigner with a large unfolded map atop a heap of luggage try to make an impatient someone understand his desire to find the E train.
“It’s this way.” I offered, and as soon as he heard my voice, the collared impatient someone quickly slipped himself out of the noose of social obligation and hurried off. The foreigner gave me that port-in-a -storm look and began bubbling over with questions in fragments of English while spinning his map.
“I’m going to the E train” I overrode with a follow-me gesture.
He thanked me profusely and begged me to wait while he gathered up his bags. He was suddenly radiant with the relief that anyone who has ever arrived in a strange land will recognize.
I wondered if he began to regret his choice to stick with me as we negotiated the challenging set of curbs, stairs, escalators, elevators and ramps that separate the Delta terminal from the Airtrain. I myself would be suspicious of such an absurd obstacle course. I showed him how to use the automated device for his ticket purchase and told him what the machine withheld, that he should purchase additional value to cover his subway ride. My stock soared as we glided by others floundering at significant junctures. I was not the savior of the masses. I was his personal savior for reasons of chance, although I wondered if, in his head, he was thanking some deity for having interceded on a cold and dark night.
We spoke very little on the E train. I did not ask him about his accent or his personal information, but he offered Nigeria as his homeland and the 28th Street exit as his destination. With each stop, he would look up at me and I would assure him that we had more to go.
When I told him that I would be getting off at the next stop but that he should stay on for two more stops, he extended his map and a pen and asked me to write down my name.
I thought about all the times when I have seen some attractive stranger-on-a-train and indulged in the common fantasy of a dangerous liaison. I knew that this was not that. I suspected he wanted to pray for me by name. I saw no harm in giving him my name, although I briefly considered and discarded supplying a fake one. When he then asked me to add my telephone number, I surprised myself by writing it correctly under my name. Certainly this is an act of stupidity, I thought, as I formed the numerals carefully between the final lurches preceding my stop. I do not know why.
On New Year’s Eve, while in the car in Fort Lauderdale, I waited in traffic for the Sunrise drawbridge over the Intracoastal Waterway to come down. Revelers tooted their horns, yacht owners entertained their guests with fireworks and my phone rang. In the din and over the static of a bad connection, I had some trouble.
“It is I. Maurice. From the E train. You help me so much. I thank very much. I thank very much. You make…For me. So much. You very…very…thank you. I wish you Happy New Year.”