In the beginning, it made me acutely uncomfortable. I found myself pondering death camps and purges; bread lines and bank collapse. One day I complained to my Russian teacher: "I never saw anyplace in the world where people are so gloomy. It takes me an hour to get from home to here, and I didn't see a single person smile the whole way. Not one!"
"Well, yes," I said.
"In Iraq? In Iraq they smile?" She was determined to break me, to get to the truth.
"Yes," I said. "Iraqis smile a lot."
"That," she said with a sneer, "is very strange."
One day I was riding out to the university for a Russian class. It was around noon on a Saturday, and the city was shaking itself out of sleep as a few early snowflakes skittered down from the steely sky. The Metro car was almost empty.
I sat staring at a young woman across the way. She must have been up all night. Her hair had been styled, she looked delicate and well dressed, her boots and bag were expensive. Her head sagged on her neck as if she were nodding on heroin. Her eyes, heavy with last night's makeup, drooped shut. Her chin dropped to her chest.
She crashed onto the floor, and the jolt woke her long enough for her to haul herself back onto the bench, where she promptly fell back into her dreams. The stout young mother at her side scooped up her little boy and moved across the aisle, lips set in disapproval.
The young woman fell onto the floor again, this time landing on the feet of the old man at her side. He shook his foot free, irritably. She resumed her place on the bench.
By now everybody in the carriage was staring at the girl, but impassively. A pair of tough-looking men were watching her like wolves. I felt nervous for her. Anybody could have scooped her off the subway car, taken her away, done anything. Who had abandoned her here? How long had she been rattling through the tunnels, waiting to sober up? I glanced at the men again. They were whispering to one another, laughing a little, running their eyes over her slumped body.
Then my stop came up, so I stood and got off. In the end, I was just another face in the crowd, watching, and then moving along.