Fate Is Just Another Four-Letter Word

Last Monday morning, I was riding the subway to a doctor’s appointment, lost in a magazine article about a musician who got kicked out of Nirvana and Soundgarden and became a war hero. It was an absorbing story, so when the screaming and yelling started, it took me a second or two to wrench my eyes from the page and direct them toward the other end of the subway car where, without warning, one woman had started stabbing another. I saw the victim lying prone on the floor, trying to protect herself from her attacker, who stood over her, waving a steak knife, and then started moving towards my end of the car. Sheer horror causes you to register the most unhelpful details: Right before I leapt from my seat and joined the stampede of my fellow riders to the adjoining car, I looked at that poor woman on the floor and thought, “Someone needs to tell her that her underwear is showing.”

Even after the train stopped, the woman with the knife was arrested, and the woman with the (mercifully non-fatal) wounds was taken to the hospital, my brain continued to function as if it were transmitting Morse code from an underground bomb shelter: “Fuck subway. Get taxi.” Later, friends reacted to the story in a similar fashion: “Fuck! What the fuck!” It was only my older friends, the ones who had grown up here through the bombed-out, track-marked ’70s and ’80s who were underwhelmed. “Used to happen all the time,” said my friend Paul, who is seventy and has regaled me with tales of such erstwhile urban fixtures as the puddle-water junkie, so named because of his or her proclivity for mixing street run-off with heroin in order to shoot up. “The city is still the city,” offered my friend Lina, who at fifty-eight remembers living on Mulberry Street when it was crunchy with crack vials and the cute little alley around the corner was a favored body disposal site for the Mafia.

When I moved here in 2001, the city was far from its Mean Streets days, but it had yet to congeal into the theme park for the wealthy and post-collegiate that it has become. It was filthy and overwhelming and turned my snot black, something that had only happened to me once before, in New Delhi. It wasn’t friendly or unfriendly; it was just fast and indifferent. There was the sense that something wonderful or senselessly awful could happen at any moment. One sunny Tuesday in September it did, and the city shrank into a tight, anxious fist. When it finally unclenched itself, there was still the sense that anything could happen, but nothing as senselessly awful as that thing that already had happened. And those of us who hadn’t lived through New York’s decades of more mundane terrors found it that much easier to believe that the worst thing that could happen to us was weekend subway construction or the Sex and the City bus tour.

New York became a small town to me, a place where I could expect to run into somebody I knew — or someone I wanted to know — almost anywhere. As such, I began to view its contradictory nature as proof of some kind of overarching kismet, where meetings were preordained, and coincidence, no matter how negligible, offered evidence of a benevolent universe.

It was through this kind of coincidence, for example, that I met Lina: Two years ago, in our search for a puppy, my then-boyfriend and I visited a Brooklyn shelter and met a black-Lab mix named Olive. The next day, we went to another shelter and ended up adopting a black-Lab mix we named Cal. A few weeks later, when I was walking Cal in the park, a woman stopped us and exclaimed that Cal looked a lot like her friend’s dog, Olive — the Olive, it turned out, that we had not adopted. A couple of months later, Cal and I met Olive and Lina at the Tompkins Square dog run, and have been good friends ever since. I love telling people that story, in large part because it reinforces my perception of the urban jungle as some kind of magical realist Lake Wobegon, a place where fate is manifested in auspicious meetings, miraculous timing, and connections that transcend age, socioeconomic background, and geography in a single bound.

When I tell people the story of the stabbing, I don’t revel in the idea of kismet; I shudder at the apathy of fate. I feel embarrassed to have been caught in the same trap as the new arrivals who view New York as a sort of open-air Apple store — shiny, user-friendly, and devoid of strife; as a place we can take for granted, where bad things happen to other people who exist only as abstract headlines.

The day after the stabbing, I boarded another train. One stop later, a woman got on. There was a look in her eye that made my shoulders tense and the car’s barometric pressure shift ever so slightly. Seconds later, she launched into a monologue about “faggots,” Jesus, and killing her entire family. At the next stop, I stood up and changed cars. The whole scenario was oddly comforting, a reminder that even in the midst of the city’s eternal chaos, and even when faced with something that looks a lot like a bad twist of fate, New Yorkers are almost unmatched in our ability to simply stand up and say, “Fuck this.”