Two nights ago, I had one of my most unexpected subway encounters yet.
I was riding home with my roommate, yakking as usual, and holding on my lap an imprint tote bag that said “Soho Crime: So good it’s a crime.” (Naturally it was bulging with books.)
Across from me sat a 40-something man with a pushcart. He was listening to headphones and we didn’t pay attention to him and vice versa.
Toward the end of our journey, there must have been some kind of unprecedented lull in me running my mouth (weird, right?) because the man across from us took the opportunity to leap in.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” he said, in what was definitely an American accent. “Your bag. It says cream?”
I was confused. “Sorry?”
“C-R-I-M-E,” he spelled. “That’s ‘cream,’ right?”
“Crime,” I said. I was so shocked I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I smiled really hard. “It says ‘Soho Crime.'”
“Crime,” he repeated. “C-R-I-M-E, crime. And that word on top,” he went on. “S-O-H-O. That’s . . . ‘shoot’? S-O-H-O shoot?”
“Soho,” I said. I was smiling so hard my face hurt. “You know, Soho, like the neighborhood downtown.”
“Soho, oh, Soho,” he said. “Soho Crime.”
“That’s right!” My brain was a little slow in keeping up with my mouth. I was speaking to a 40-something American man who didn’t know how to read. I kept smiling. I didn’t want him under any circumstances to understand how shaken I was.
“And under that,” he went on, undeterred, ” ‘So good it’s a crime,’ ” he read out, clearly and slowly.
“Yes!” Maybe I sounded more excited than I needed to.
“That’s right, that’s right. You gotta sound things out,” the man told me, nodding. “Gotta keep practicing and sound things out.”
“Yes,” I said again. Luckily the train pulled into the station then, and my roommate and I wished him a pleasant evening. As we stepped onto the platform, my text-addicted eye swept over all the signs hanging in the train windows and along the ceiling banners. I thought about what riding the train each day must be like for this man, being surrounded by colorful information that means nothing.
My mind was completely clouded by this encounter. On the one hand, I was glad he wasn’t embarrassed about trying and asking for help. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine what his frame of reference might be that he wouldn’t worry about being judged for not knowing how to read. That almost upset me more than realizing there are adults who cannot read–realizing that there are adults who don’t find it terribly abnormal to not be able to read.