CHEESEBURGERS

I used to love to sit in New York City subway cars and look at all the different faces across from me. At that time all the subway cars had long benches, one across from the other, each bench holding 10-12 people, and if you were lucky you saw 12 completely different faces, from ethnic groups all over the world.

There they are, sitting elbow to elbow, in their own respective worlds and thoughts. Maybe they’re mentally reviewing the job they’d just left or what’s ahead for them at home, thinking about children or what they’re going to make for dinner, and do they have to stop at a food market. They’re barely aware of each other, they just do their thing, some tired and shutting their eyes, others listening to music or talking on the phone, all in one subway car together, effortlessly, not realizing how amazing it all is to me, sitting across from them and looking from one face to another.

I no longer live in New York, so now I love to look at the credits that roll in the end of movies and see all the different names of editors, cinematographers, producers, animation specialists, special effects folks, the many assistants. Sometimes there are hundreds of names rolling down that screen: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, African, Jewish, Muslim (a more recent phenomenon), and straight WASP, as I think of it.

I do the same thing with the acknowledgments at the end of books, especially nonfiction informational books that list the many names of those who helped with research, editing, proofreading, inspiration, etc. It never fails to move me how people with such different names, coming from such different backgrounds, work together to create something that wasn’t there before.

I grew up in a religious Jewish household and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had different priorities than others in my family and community, one especially. I was not interested in the question of what it meant to be Jewish. I was interested in the question of what it meant to be human.

The bus driver who took us teenagers to school and back often ate his meals while waiting for us to board. His special favorite seemed to be cheeseburgers. I would sit up front and stare and stare at him as he ate. In our house, where meat and dairy were always kept separate, we never had cheeseburgers.

One day I said to my mother, “Mom, do you ever wonder what cheeseburgers taste like?”

She turned around slowly. “Never! Not once!” She couldn’t have been more horrified if I’d asked her what a dog turd tasted like with yellow mustard on the side.

Right then and there I knew I was different. I also knew that it was dangerous to be that way. Usually, people didn’t say you were different, they said you were crazy.

I don’t usually sit on New York subways anymore. But I think about what that was like, how different we all were, sunk in our own thoughts even as the train hurtled uptown, carrying us all into the next moment, the next future, the next life. We didn’t have to do much, just pay a subway fare, and the train transported us equally uptown regardless of who we were or what station we got off.