train encounter 6: ‘like a horse and a pig’

Monday — 5 September, 2011

I head to campus for a meeting and (as usual) I’m running late, but I expect to be  around 30 minutes late, max. I rush to the train station.

After swiping in and running down the steps, I walk to the end of the platform and wait for the train. And wait some more. And keep waiting. About 10-15 minutes later, the Q train finally pulls up. I get in without thinking twice because it was really humid and the trains are always cool. I take a seat and realize that I will need to transfer at DeKalb Avenue (the last stop in Brooklyn) to the B train.

When DeKalb Avenue finally arrives, I get off and lean on the column facing the open doors of the Q train. Two ladies walk into the Q train and sit down looking the window to where I am standing. One of them is smiling and pointing at me and I’m not quite sure why. Although the thought that maybe the B trains aren’t running crosses my mind.

The Q train leaves and a little while later, a man comes running the down the steps.

“Excuse me, I need to get to Grand Street,” he says with a Russian accent, peering down at me.

“I think you can take the Q,” I say, pointing to the sign above us.

“Oh, the Q goes to Grand Street?”

“I think so, or maybe it’s the B. I’m not sure. But, there should be a map down the platform,” I say, pointing beyond the staircase he came down from.

“I have a map,” he says, looking through his large shoulder bag. He takes out a worn out and taped up map.

We look at it together and he points to the dot that reads: Grand Street.

“B or D,” he says.

“Okay, so you can take the B train from here,” I reply, pointing to the same sign I had pointed at earlier.

“The B is running today?”

“I don’t know. I hope so,” I say, thinking about the woman who pointed and smiled.

“It’s a holiday, so I don’t know if it is running.”

We wait. A few moments of silence pass between us.

“Where are you from?” he asks. I think and then hesitate and then answer, rethinking whether he is really Russian.

“Pakistan,” I say, switching in the middle from the way it is meant to pronounced to the way it is annunciated in the United States.

“Pakistan,” he repeats, “Your english is fluent.”

“Oh, I grew up here.”

“I grew…up. I grew up here?” he repeats.

“Yes, I grew up here,” I say, thinking of a way to say it differently, “I came here when I was little.”

“You were raised here!” he exclaims.

“Yes! I was raised here,” I say, thinking that that is definitely a better and more eloquent way of putting it than: I grew up here. 

“What did you use? What is the synonym?”

“I grew up here. Grew.”

“I grew up here. Grew. I grow up here.”

“I grew up here. It’s the past tense of grow.”

“Ah, I understand,” he says, nodding his head, seeming fascinated by the language. “And what was the alternative?”

“I was raised here.”

“Raised and grew up.”

“Where are you from?” I ask a few moments later as I try to decipher his face. A large white mustache, balding head, and a heavy build. Could he be Middle Eastern? I think to myself. He could be anything, really. After many encounters, I stopped playing the guessing game.

He puffs out his chest a little and stands straight.

“USSR,” he says.

“Oh, wow,” I respond, and naïvely so: “I have a friend who is Russian.”

“Where is he from?”

“Ukraine.”

“I was born in Ukraine,” he says.

Eventually, we end up speaking about languages again.

I tell him I’m taking Arabic and he asks what language people speak in Pakistan.

“Urdu,” I say, but not very clearly.

“Ur…” he doesn’t quite catch it. I repeat it, until I finally spell it out.

“U-r-d-u.”

“Oh, Urdu,” he says, definitely a lot more clearly than I could ever have said it.

We turn the conversation to English.

“English is a hard language,” I say, speaking from the experiences of adults and neighbors who tried to learn the language.

“It’s not hard. If you study as an adult, it is difficult. But for children, they don’t learn a language,” he tries to think of a way to put what he is thinking, “they absorb it.”

I agreed with him.

“When I was taking a foreign language,” he says, “German, we had a saying that German and English were like a horse and a pig.”

We both laugh at the oddity of the statement. Like a horse and a pig.

I turn towards the train track and see a Q train pulling up.

Oh dear.

“So the B isn’t running today,” I turn back to him, speaking quickly. I think about whether you can take the R to Grand Street — but remember that it goes to Canal Street instead. “You should take the train to Atlantic Avenue and transfer to the D.”

He looks at his map that he held on to in his hand. He points to a dot in Brooklyn.

“Atlantic, Pacific,” he says, “D train.”

“Yes. Just go back up the stairs and transfer,” I say, pointing up the stairs and to the left.

“Oh, I have to go up again.”

“Yes.”

He turns and begins walking up the stairs just as the Q train comes to a halt. I wonder whether I should accompany him to Atlantic Avenue and take the D into the city with him — after all, the D goes to West 4th Street, whereas the Q does not. I hesitate and enter the Q train. That would be strange. Besides, he seems to have enough experience with the New York City transit system — his worn out map is a witness to that.

I take a seat on the Q train and wonder which options I have to get to the NYU campus…for that meeting that began an hour ago.

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