In London, Roald Dahl called it the witching hour. The dark pitch of night around 3 a.m., when evening animals fall asleep and morning ones haven’t begun to rise. It was when the Big Friendly Giant went roaming the streets and ultimately met Sophie, a small English girl with grit and curiosity. It was the type of meeting that could only happen during that special time.
New York has its own witching hour, and it’s between 11:30 and midnight, when I’m riding the subway home from Manhattan. I’m tired, but I don’t close my eyes. There’s too much to see; the train is packed. After all, Astoria is both a neighborhood destination and a going-out location. Some people will soon be flirting with a bartender while others are lancing towards bed.
There must be a reason why some of my most memorable New York moments happen at this hour. I’m usually exhausted, after being social for some time before. It’s a relief to not have to speak to anyone and allow myself to look around the subway car and introspect until I’m satisfied. There’s the sleepiness of having a full meal of a day. I often listen to this song Raised by Swans’ “Violet Light”. (Editor’s note: the song will open in this window. I’ve written this post with the idea that you’ll play the song while reading, so you may have to disable pop-ups and pull up two pages to get the full effect. It’s worth it. Promise.)
A year ago, the train car was full. I was standing, looking out the dark window and trying to scope the people sitting below me without being seen. I was too tired to truly disguise my curiosity at the two women there. Each was wearing heavy makeup and glittery lipstick. One had a black satin shirt and the other silver sparkles. I knew immediately something was different about them. After a few stops, I decided they were likely transvestites, or at least cross-dressers. (Not like the bearded man in a dress I saw at Penn Station last week. This pair was aiming for similarity, if not authenticity.) As I continued to consider their imagined lives, the one in silver looked up at me and smiled. It was a dinner-party smile. The kind you give when you’ve met someone you immediately like and something funny happens. You create an unearned intimacy, but it makes you both feel good. That’s what she gave me.
The ride continued. Every so often, I would look down and she would roll her face up to mine and smile that smile. I returned it, but tentatively. It was late, and I didn’t want to encourage unwanted attention or send the wrong signal. (Sometimes New York is like being in a foreign country, where I can’t automatically figure out the cultural implications of my acts.) As our interaction continued, I became more curious. Her smile never changed. There was nothing sexual, no come-hither. It never got any more or less intimate or involved. I felt safe and content in her friendliness, which surprised me. When I got off the train I stood outside the window as it revved and then rumbled past. The other passengers streamed around me like water, but I waited silently until she looked my way.
I waved, and then I walked home.