The metro and the magic machine

Washington, DC — Every rush hour, probably on every train, definitely the Red line and the Blue and Orange, at all of the busy stops — Woodley Park, Dupont Circle, Farrugut North, Metro Center and, on the way back Rosslyn, a combination of chess and musical chairs ensues every time the doors open and seats empty.

Young people, as a rule, show convincing disinterest in the empty seats, older people don’t. But the inevitable exceptions call for manuevering. My low blood pressure, which has made standing an ordeal for me my whole life, and my gray hair, which has made everything easier, grant me, in my view, any seat I can slither in ahead of anyone who is not pregnant or carrying a cane. Some embarrassing day, I suspect, some other gray-haired person is going to end up sidling into my lap.

In the meantime, I do what I can, and had planted myself in time to watch a series of other seatings, and was opening my book when a balding suited young man asked the middle-aged woman in front of him something, which probably had something to do with why she had a wooden box on the  only otherwise empty seat next to her, instead of on her lap.

I assume that because I didn’t hear him, and she did have an arm around a long wooden box that rested on the seat next to her, and she in turn, staring searchingly into his face, asked if he would like to sit down. No, no, he said, as if the thought was ridiculous — who would want to sit at the end of a work day instead of jerking around dangling from one arm, after all.

She took that, apparently to mean he really wanted to know what the box was for, because she turned it over to show it had strings, like a harpischord running from top to bottom, but no keys.

“If you run your hand across the strings,” she told him, “it’s supposed to have the power to _______ your mind.”

The blank sounded like “erase” but I couldn’t believe she said that, so I left it blank.

She strummed her finger over the strings, and continuing to stare directly into his face asked if he could feel it.

I couldn’t hear his reply, but I could feel his predicament. What do you say — no? and then she keeps trying? or yes, and she moves onto the next step, which seemed inevitable. He seemed to be trying to say sure, whatever you say. She continued to look at him, like an extremely bad tv detective, while strumming. The people who were talking to each other stopped talking. The people who were fiddling with their iphones stopped fiddling. I let my book rest in my lap. The train stopped, no seats emptied, but then she turned the box so that its back faced out, and moved it just enough, against the back of the seat so the young man in the suit could perch on the edge of the seat which he did, and rest his suited back against it.

“Do you feel it?” she said, strumming.

“Well yes, of course, I can feel it,” he said.

The next stop, Metro Center, he got up like the seat was on fire. She followed him out, it was her stop too apparently, and it was mine. As we all jostled for places away on the escalator, she stared searchingly around, it seemed, for her next subject.


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