Don't Make Eye Contact
With Anyone On The "Unterban"
fascinated with the "unterban" (subway) system. "The Taking of
Pelham 1 2 3" is a remake of the 1974 thriller and stars Denzel Washington and
John Travolta. It opened with an estimated $15 million in ticket sales at North
American theatres, according to box-office tracking companies.
"perzenlekh" (personal) note, I rode the New York City subways for
three years while attending NYU. People advised me: "If you encounter a
'meshuge,' person, don't make eye contact. Don't talk to
strangers. Read a "bukh" so you're not caught staring. (In
2009, I would be told to keep my iPod where it's safe so no one will take it.)
Jim McDevitt ("Subway Etiquette"), writes, "After you have decided whether you
want a local or express and have memorized the names of all your stops, you can
go to the train platform. Hint! Don't stand too close to the
edge. If you're not having a good day, someone may accidentally knock into
you and you could find yourself on the tracks while the F train bears down on
continues, "Once on the train, let's just say the F train, don't make eye
contact with anyone. It's a sign of aggression to make eye contact with
someone on the subway. Of course, if you're packing an UZI in your
briefcase ("teke"), then you're free to make eye contact if you're
prepared to shoot...When you're hanging onto the straphanger, don't look down or
make any eye contact. Think of it this way, no one should ever be able to
think that you could identify them in a police ("politsey") line
important, McDevitt says, "If you're stuck in a tunnel due to a fire, flood or
accident or maybe the police are chasing someone on the tracks, NEVER TALK TO
ANYONE. If someone talks to you, just look pleasant. Not too
pleasant but not unfriendly. If you look too pleasant, we'll know you're
an out-of-towner...Just be invisible and don't exist."
for Paul Deutschman, he did NOT follow the advice of Jim McDevitt. Mr.
Deutschman had an article titled, "It Happened on the Brooklyn Subway" published
in the Reader's Digest in May 1949. I had the pleasure of reading it in
the book "More Stories for the Heart - Over 10 Stories to Warm Your Heart"
compiled by Alice Gray (Multnomash Publishing Inc.) Read the entire book;
it's wonderful. The story is shown below:
ON THE BROOKLYN SUBWAY
The car was
crowded, and there seemed to be no chance of a seat. But as I entered, a
man sitting by the door suddenly jumped up to leave, and I slipped into the
living in New York long enough not to start conversations with strangers. But,
being a photographer, I have the peculiar habit of analyzing people's faces, and
I was struck by the features of the passenger on my left. He was probably
in his late 30s, and when he glanced up, his eyes seemed to have a hurt
expression in them. He was reading a Hungarian-language newspaper, and
something prompted me to say in Hungarian, "I hope you don't mind if I glance at
seemed surprised to be addressed in his native language. But he only
answered politely, "You may read it now. I'll have time later
half-hour ride to town, we had quite a conversation. He said his name was
Bela Paskin. A law student when World War II started, he had been put into
a German labor battalion and sent to the Ukraine. Later he was captured by
the Russians and put to work burying the German dead. After the war, he
covered hundreds of miles on foot until he reached his home in Debrecen, a large
city in eastern Hungary.
knew Debrecen quite well, and we talked about it for a while. Then he told
me the rest of the story. When he went to the apartment once occupied by
his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, he found strangers living
there. Then he went upstairs to the apartment he and his wife once
had. It was also occupied by strangers. None of them had ever heard of his
As he was
leaving, full of sadness, a boy ran after him, calling, "Paskin
bacsi! Paskin bacsi!" That means "Uncle Paskin."
The child was the son of some old neighbors of his. He went to the
boy's home and talked to his parents. "Your whole family is dead," they
told him. "The Nazis took them and your wife to Auschwitz."
was one of the worst Nazi concentration camps. Paskin gave up all
hope. A few days later, too heartsick to remain any longer in Hungary, he
set out on foot again, stealing across border after border until he reached
Paris. He managed to immigrate to the United States in October 1947, just
three months before I met him.
time he had been talking, I kept thinking that somehow his story seemed
familiar. A young woman whom I met recently at the home of friends,
had also been from Debrecen; she had been sent to Auschwitz; from there
she had been transferred to work in a German munitions factory. Her
relatives had been killed in the gas chambers. Later, she was liberated by
the Americans and was brought here in the first boatload of displaced persons in
had moved me so much that I had written down her address and phone number,
intending to invite her to meet my family and thus help relieve the terrible
emptiness in her life.
impossible that there could be an connection between these two people, but as I
neared my station, I fumbled anxiously in my address book. I asked in what
I hoped was a casual voice, "Was your wife's name Marya?"
pale. "Yes!" he answered. "How did you know?"
as if he were about to faint.
"Let's get off the train." I took him by the arm at the next station and
led him to a phone booth. He stood there like a man in a trance while I
dialed her phone number.
hours before Marya Paskin answered. Later I learned her room was alongside
the telephone, but she was in the habit of never answering it because she had so
few friends and the calls were always for someone else. This time,
however, there was no one else at home and, after letting it ring for awhile,
heard her voice at last, I told her who I was and asked her to describe her
husband. She seemed surprised at the question, but gave me a
description. Then I asked her where she had lived in Debrecen, and she
told me the address.
to hold the line, I turned to Paskin and said, "Did your wife live on
such-and-such a street?"
exclaimed. He was white as a sheet and trembling.
"Try to be
calm," I urged him. "Something miraculous is about to happen to you. Here,
take the telephone and talk to your wife!"
his head in mute bewilderment, his eyes bright with tears. He took the receiver,
listened a moment to his wife's voice, then cried suddenly. "This is Bela!
This is Bela!" and he began to mumble hysterically. Seeing that the poor
fellow was so excited he couldn't talk coherently, I took the receiver from his
you are," I told Marya, who also sounded hysterical. "I am sending your
husband to you. We will be there in a few minutes."
crying like a baby and saying over and over again, "It is my wife. I go to
At first I
thought I had better accompany Paskin, lest the man should faint from
excitement, but I decided that this was a moment in which no strangers should
intrude. Putting Paskin into a taxicab, I directed the driver to take him
to Marya's address, paid the fare, and said good-bye.
Paskin's reunion with his wife was a moment so poignant, so electric with
suddenly released emotion, that afterward neither he nor Marya could recall much
only that when I left the phone, I walked to the mirror like in a dream to see
if maybe my hair had turned grey," she said later. "The next thing I know,
a taxi stops in front of the house, and it is my husband who comes toward
me. Details I cannot remember; only this I know--that I was happy for the
first time in many years...
it is difficult to believe that it happened. We have both suffered so
much; I have almost lost the capability to not be afraid Each time my
husband goes from the house, I say to myself, 'Will anything happen to take him
from me again?"
is confident that no horrible misfortune will ever befall them.
"Providence has brought us together," he says simply. "It was meant to
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is the author of a new book
titled, "Yiddish for Dog & Cat Lovers." To order, click
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