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Subway Seminar

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By William Deresiewicz

September 19, 2011


 

Broadway local, upper Manhattan, early afternoon in May. Almost empty at Van Cortlandt Park, where the train began its run, the car is crowded as we head through Washington Heights. A couple of young idiots guffaw at each other in Spanish, slap hands; every fifth word is mujeres, ha ha ha—the universal language of testosterone. Another young guy sits next to them: quiet, a gut, earrings, a wife beater. Across his hairy chest in Gothic script, Amor Vincit Omnia.

Around 145th St.—the mujeres boys have gotten off; the swaying rhythm of the ride has taken over, lulling the crowd—a voice begins to edge its way into my consciousness. It’s coming from somewhere down the car—strident, sharp, a little adenoidal, pitched a couple of notches too loud. I look over: a woman, maybe 60, bony and pale, a baseball cap pulled tightly on her scalp. Knapsack stuffed with papers. Great—another crazy. She’s saying something about the elevators, complaining about the elevators in the subway, how they never work, nothing ever works. She’s been away from the city for 30 years, and now she’s back and nothing works. People exchange derisive looks, not even bothering to be subtle about it.

Then someone else begins, good God, to answer back—a woman, maybe 45. Says something about the budget crisis, city services, the banks.

“You must be a teacher,” the crazy woman says. “You’re very smart. What do you do?”

“Actually, I am a teacher, but I used to work for a bank. Mergers and acquisitions. I saw how it worked.”

“Yeah, you’re a teacher, that’s why you can explain things so good and put it all in order and use a computer to get information. I’m really getting my money’s worth today. Tell me, who can I talk to to complain about what’s going on, with the banks?”

“Well, you can try writing to the SEC.”

“The SEC—what’s that?”

“The Securities and Exchange Commission, in Washington. You can write to them.”

“That’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to write to them,” she says, pulling out a notebook. “Securities and Exchange Commission,” she says as she jots it down. “Because at least we still got a voice. This isn’t Russia, not yet. Maybe someday the KGB is going to come and cut out my tongue, but I’m going to keep talking until they do.”

She falls silent for a moment, then says, “Tell me something. Why did we give the banks all that money?”

“Because if we didn’t, the whole economy would have collapsed.”

“Oh, so they backed us into a corner. We didn’t have a choice. I see. I sure hope they passed a law so they can’t still do all that, because if they didn’t it’ll happen again and then we won’t be a country anymore and the Chinese will take over.”

Imagine how insane you’d have to be to think a thing like that.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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