Cold front

An ugly encounter on a Viennese metro colors a winter's day.


Mona R. Washington
January 13, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Even though the Viennese metro is warmer than the air that sweeps through Karlsplatz, it is cold. Very cold. I wait in the small line at the entrance, put my ticket in the machine and rush down the stairs for the next train. Praying that my smile atones for my bad pronunciation, I try my rudimentary "bitte" and "danke." Though people walk quickly, there is no pushing. I arrive seconds too late, but I know the next train will arrive in exactly four minutes. After three weeks, I've decided I no longer need to wear my watch.

We wait, giving the elderly the benches and spaces to lean, though few people lean against the wall. Although they could with no fear of contracting a horrible virus, or even dirt. It is amazingly clean. I could be homeless in here. Clean toilets, and no smell. I'm an East Coaster who thinks Mayor Rudolf Giuliani is justifiably proud of New York City's subway improvements, but this place is a different standard.

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Two teachers have what seems to be a fairly easy task; these children are orderly and disciplined. Twenty children at the most, some with their front teeth still new, and others with wide-gapped smiles. There are five or six little girls together, talking, laughing and whispering among themselves. They are pretty, wearing brightly colored mittens and long, cat-in-the-hat ski caps. One girl's blond plaits peek out beneath her long knitted hat, which has tassels matching those on her mittens. These little girls are chic, and have color-complementary leggings. I had a mustard yellow bubble suit at their age, but I try to contain my jealousy. No shortage of fodder for confession this week.

One little girl looks over at me. Her upturned nose and bright green eyes are lovely. I smile. She turns back to her group, and I fear offense. I know the difficulty my friends have teaching their children the balance between giving and receiving smiles from strangers while guarding their own safety. Hard job. Three of the girls look at me. They girk (giggle and smirk). I check for lipstick on my teeth and pigeon poop on my plain, blue ski hat. But they are not girking at my hat. They are girking at me. I can take it. Grade school stuff. Exclusionary girls' fight. Been there before.

They turn back to their group. They girk some more, and start making gestures toward me, pointing to their skin. I stop smiling. They continue girking, and add faces. The teacher does nothing. She watches us. I watch her watch us, and she realizes that I am watching her, waiting for a reprimand, or some visible censure. There is none. I wait.

The train arrives on time. Clean, and efficient. We all board in an orderly fashion, and I stand. My coat is very long. The girls continue to girk inside the train, and the teacher remains silent, avoiding my eyes. I stand next to a small boy whose boots threaten to swallow his legs. He looks up at me and smiles. At me. He is cute, and his smile is infectious. I recover mine, and prepare to exit at the next stop. But I must pass the silent teacher and the girking, gesticulating girls to reach the door. By now others have noticed. They avert their eyes as well. I quickly look back at the boy and risk impolite territory: "Auf Wiedersehen." Goodbye. The doors close as I see him mouthing the words back, and standing not too far from the girking girls. They no longer seem so cute.

The cold air blasts me as I walk toward Kdrntner Strasse. Nice shops seem the same everywhere. I ruminate on my metro ride as I look into the faces of the passersby. Anyone who looks over 65 seems suspect. I feel like I've been transported to the Deep South, where my knowledge threatens to block my civility. I remember my ignorance, but my mind won't stop. You know the spiel; some of my best friends are, and come in all shapes and sizes and religious persuasions, including old(er) white men and women, who have offered and shown me nothing but kindness and love in their homes and hearts and through their families. I'm no picnic, and I readily confess to diva days.

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I know there is a difference between race and racism. But the individuals from whom I've received love don't worry me. It is the young girking girls. Who will they be? Nazis and lynch mobs threaten to ruin a crisp, clear day. I focus on the little boy's smile. I like his parents. I hope people like mine through me. Who will I be? I try to check my own girk tendencies as I watch the snow begin to fall.


Mona R. Washington

Mona R. Washington is a writer who lives in London.

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