I never tease friends about their phobias, even when they’re ridiculous (the phobias-not my friends). There was a classmate who wouldn’t swim in the ocean after Jaws opened in theaters. I haven’t seen her in years. Maybe she still won’t swim. I knew a seriously out of shape woman who was terrified of elevators: When her mother was hospitalized, she visited by climbing eleven flights of stairs. When she finally reached the patients’ room wheezing, with cheeks flushed and hair tamped down with sweat, her mom called out, “Good Lord, Jane. You look worse than I feel.” Once, a dinner guest jumped straight up on our dining room when Fido V barked his hello. I am sure each of these otherwise normal folks have their reasons, but even if they don’t, I firmly believe everyone is afraid of something-rational or not.
Which brings me to my personal bug-a-boo; subway trains. Those suffocating prisons filled with dangerous inmates, including, but not limited to bedbugs, rats and psychotics. People use them every day. Be assured that I will not be among them. The last time I was coaxed to ride below ground was on a frigid January night about a half dozen years ago. I had a book event in the city and wisely chose the Long Island Railroad to get me there. My friend, BJ Sung, offered to meet me and take me home, omitting that she had parked her car in Queens and caught the subway into Manhattan. I’m old enough to be BJ’s babysitter, which meant screaming and clutching at the entrance banister would make me a crazy old lady in her eyes. I swallowed hard while she swiped her metro card and pushed me through. Once aboard, I scanned the car for predators. Seated was a person of undistinguishable sexual origin in tank top, gym shorts and flip flops, (Remember-I said it was a winter’s night,) a pair of teens giggling uncontrollably and wreaking of cannabis and a twenty-something businessman with an expensive haircut fringing his beady eyes. I chose to stand rather than have my precious clothing infected by subway seat germs. As the train grumbled to its next stop, the businessman walked past me toward the opening doors, stopping only for a moment to cup my bottom in his palm. That was my last subway trip. (Readers take note: In Alice Again, Alice travels nightly to Red Sky; by car, Long Island Railroad and bus, proving subways are even too awful for pretend women in fantasy universes.)
Not all my memories of subway travel are painful: Coming home from school by train was the teenage version of a singles’ bar. Daily, boys from other schools flirted and I flirted back. One boldly asked for my number and got it. We dated for a while. To see my beloved Mets, I eagerly hopped on the 7 train to Shea stadium where I’d cheer as they won some and lost most. And it was in a subway car I had my first secret crush on a grown-up man. It was love from a far, as I furtively glanced across the aisle at his English-cut suit and fine Italian wingtips. His cosmopolitan wardrobe was wondrous to me, having a dad who owned one Sunday suit for weddings and wakes. But these happy events hardly dent my opinion of subway travel. However, if I dare to travel by underground again, it will be in Korea. It was in a Seoul underground station that I learned that when I leave America, it’s my duty to represent it.
Today’s Korean commuters pay with their cell-phones, but in 2003, I bought a subway ticket and was given a teensy slip of yellow paper with my change. In silence, I followed the commuter crowds to the turnstiles, watching as each little yellow strip was fed into a provided slot allowing its owner access to the trains. I followed along, but sadly didn’t look back to see the end game of Seoul subway travel. Being packed into a crowd was easy for this New Yorker. Finding my train was equally simple. The cleanliness was startling, but appreciated. I took a seat and enjoyed the ride.
When Insa-dong, written in English, appeared on the overhead zipper, I strutted out the doors, emboldened by my big city savviness. I had successfully traveled half way across the world on my own and needed only a moment to re-read my map. By the time I was ready, the station had emptied out. Alone I headed for the stairs, unaware that the yellow slip of paper was not only my ticket aboard, but for my exit as well. The gates were locked to those without their yellows. I tried another section and another. Trapped! I was ready to take off my shoes and hurdle the iron bars like a NY fare beater, when in the distance, I saw a ticket seller; watching and condemning me, (at least that’s how I felt.) Was I pissed at this crazy country that locked folks inside train stations? Absolutely! Did I want them to judge Americans as gate-crashers? Absolutely not! My brain ran through the dozen Korean words I knew till I pieced together a sentence to unlock his heart.
I rubbed my palms - back and forth fast enough to start a fire and tilted my head downward as I called to him, “Ahjusheh, Me an neh!” (Mister, I’m sorry.) I kept my head down in respect for the man with the key, while listening to the ticket booth door open and the pat-pat of shoes on the tiled floor. I raised my eyes to see a laughing man in a green uniform setting me free. “Gam sah me dah, Gam sah me dah.” (Thank you.) I bowed lower. He laughed harder and quickly headed back to his post.
I now have a larger Korean vocabulary, but my most useful phrases are still - I’m sorry and thank you.