The Masses

06/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Stephanie Gertler Author: Jimmy's Girl, The Puzzle Bark Tree, Drifting, The Windmill

On Tuesday, my husband and I went to a mass at St. Catherine's for our friend Joe who died too young one year ago Memorial Day weekend. St. Catherine's is one of New York City's anonymous gems. Located on the upper east side, nearly obscured by construction and scaffolding on a "side street," the church's jewel-toned stained glass windows, soaring ceilings and red brick walls define a sanctuary. Although not one for organized religion, or prayers said in unison, I recited The Lord's Prayer with the others. How many times did I (rebelliously) recite that prayer each morning at school? It was both odd and comforting - and an homage to Joe.

Mark and I rarely find ourselves together on the Upper East Side. It is where Mark works, where I grew up, where my father still resides (for 52 years), and the place where my mother died. It is the part of town (and yes, New York is a small "town" especially when you've lived here for a lifetime) filled with a cacophony of memories and emotions - not to mention crowds. For those reasons, Mark and I choose now to live in the bowels of Manhattan's old financial district where, come five o'clock, the streets empty and the bars fill, the restaurants close early, and the confluence of the two rivers tell us that, indeed and thankfully, we live on an island.

We timed our subway ride downtown to avoid rush hour, catching the express at 59th Street after a glass of wine at a little bistro. The 59th Street stop is one I rarely use now. As a kid, it was a destination point for meeting my girlfriends at Bloomingdale's basement where once upon a time there were bargains. Just as the train pulled out of the station, two really buff young men in what I call sleeveless undershirts and the younger generation calls "wife beaters" turned on a boom box and began dancing and performing acrobatics as the train roared past the local stations. Somersaulting flips in the aisles and using the subway poles as pull-up bars and swings, they passed a hat at the end of their performance, and then moved to the local as the train pulled into Grand Central when our car all but emptied out of commuters.

Mark and I grabbed two seats next to a woman and her two children. The woman was perhaps 30, although the dark circles beneath her eyes and the pallor of her skin made her look not necessarily older, but worn. Her daughter, probably around 12, was a true beauty - shiny dark-hair, round deep brown eyes and creamy skin the color of toast. Unlike the pontificating conversation of the pseudo-intellect at the bistro who unfortunately sat at the next table waxing on about the "blow-hards of academia," I was mesmerized by this woman's conversation with her children.

"Mommy, Daddy said he's giving us money," the little girl said, nearly pleading for credibility.

"Don't talk to me about him," the mother said. "Stop listening to what he tells you."

"But he promised..."

"You have to stop believing him. He gives us nothing. Nothing. Stop."

And then there was her little boy, perhaps around nine, playing with an empty plastic cup that once held some sort of "smoothie" based upon the cup's logo and the remnants of red juice at the bottom. He started to place the cup under the seat.

"Justin! You wait until we get off the train," said his mother. "You throw that in the garbage."

"But they threw their cups," he said, pointing to a group of teens across the car.

"Don't point. We are not like those people," the mother whispered. "We are different from those kinds of people. You are different, Justin."

And Justin, like so many boys his age, kept tossing his cup into the air, catching it, pretending that he would toss it under the seat and defy his mother. The little girl resumed the conversation about her father when a man came on the train dressed in rags, pulling bags of chips and pretzels from a filthy knapsack. He offered "free" food to those on the train unless they wanted to offer him whatever "change" they could for snacks. Justin leaned toward him, fingers splayed.

"You don't take food from anyone," the mother said, taking down his hand. "Sit back. Quiet now. We will be fine. We get our own food. Do you understand me?"

How patiently, wearily, firmly, gently she spoke to her children as the subway hurtled along the rails.

The subway's red digital clock showed 7 p.m. What was the woman's back story? I wondered. Was the Daddy a deadbeat husband or a deadbeat boyfriend? Was the woman just coming from work and taking her children home only to start her day again? That second shift when we feed our kids and help them with homework and get them into bed? Would she sleep tonight or lie awake and worry how she would make the rent, buy food, clothe her children, keep them from believing in false promises, direct them in different ways from her own to make their future?

I wanted to reach into my purse and hand the woman a stack of bills - and yet I knew that given the conversations she had just had with her children, it would be an insult.

What I would say to her if she was my friend?

There are signs on subway cars in both Spanish and English: "If you see something, say something. Si usted ve algo, diga algo." An ad campaign born out of September 11, 2001 encouraging people to watch for an enemy, terrorists, a lone suitcase or paper bag on the platform, anything that seems to pose a threat. We have all become accustomed to the signs as well as the recorded voice that comes periodically over the loudspeaker reminding us to secure our belongings and not let anyone touch us in a way that is inappropriate. Just as the train neared our Fulton Street stop, I saw the sign in front of me: If you see something, say something, it nearly shouted to me. Well, I had seen something - should I say something? Before it was time to get off the train, holding my breath, uncertain as to how my words might be construed - not wanting them to sound either condescending or as though I had been eavesdropping when I was only a fly on the wall who knew little except what I heard, I leaned over to the woman.

"You're a really good mother," I said. "It's not easy explaining certain things to our children."

She smiled, and took my arm. "Thank you," she said.

And then I turned to Justin, "Don't tease your Mommy so much. You're a good boy. Be a good boy for your Mommy, OK?"

And then again before I exited the train, she and I clasped hands. It was a moment in Anytown between women - one who has the luck of the draw, and another who has the odds stacked against her. But in that moment, we were both women and mothers and the playing field was even.

I wish I had stayed on the train with the woman until she arrived home. What I said to her didn't feel like nearly enough. Our brief encounter wasn't nearly enough.

Maybe in this small town of ours, I'll run into her again one day...

I hope so.

A question:

What stops you from doing something and saying something?