141. Baby Phat

A LATE-NIGHT 'A' TRAIN rattles downtown. At 175th Street a woman enters the carriage, wearing a shiny red miniskirt and army boots, and a black leather jacket with the words Baby Phat curling across the back. She sits at the back end of the carriage, not far from me, facing a middle-aged man whose thick glasses lend him a look somewhere between bewilderment and fear. She points through the glass window into the next carriage and says to him with a sassy smile on her lips, He's still there. The middle-aged man doesn't respond. He's stupid, she continues, he's so stupid, he's following me, he's stupid, he's so stupid, he's been following me all morning, stupid. So stupid. Stupid. She begins an elaborate preening routine: her left hand touches her left ankle, then she rubs her hands together; then her right hand touches her right hand and she rubs her hands together; then her left hand runs across her hair and she rubs her hands together; then her right hand does the same. I go back to my book. From the other end of the carriage I hear a woman's voice float above the rattling of the train: Ladies and gentleman, ... to bother you ... a few dollars ... looking for a job ... I look up and see a woman, very young, beautiful too, with dark hair and thick eyebrows, walking uncertainly through the carriage as the train hurtles downtown, gathering a dollar here, a quarter there, and, once she has arrived to the end of the carriage, stuffing her dollar bills in her back pocket and taking a seat next to the man with the glasses. There is a look of stunned fear on her face too, but also something crushed, something on the verge. Baby Phat studies the newcomer carefully. The middle-aged man stands nervously and walks down the carriage to another seat, casting a backward glance at the women, although neither of them seems to notice. The girl is lost in her thoughts, picking at her fingernails, as if she is knitting with invisible needles, while Baby Phat continues to observe her shrewdly. Finally she leans across to her young neighbor and, mumbling as if imparting a grave confidence, gives her some advice I can only make out in fragments: ... shwshwshw sometimes you got to shwshwshw but only if there's no shwshwshw ... As the train slows for the next stop, the girl stands abruptly and rushes for the door. As she steps out of the carriage, Baby Phat stands up too and throws out one last piece of advice: Take good care of yourself, baby.