I was running late the day I heard it.
When the G train arrived that morning, each window was collaged with flattened coats. For readers unfamiliar with New York’s subway: it was packed. (For those familiar: there was also probably room in the middle of the f*cking car). Normally I’d wait for another train to come to avoid spooning a stranger, but I was late. I stuffed myself in the way you force a paperback book between others on a shelf.
I craned my neck away from a head of dandruff, and when the train lurched, thoughts floated up. Is this the life I’m choosing? How the hell did I get here? I imagined standing on a dock on a lake, coffee in hand, breathing deeply, a rowboat passing by. Then, involuntarily: Flonase. Be greater than your allergies.
At work, I thought about the last time I saw my sister, 11 years my junior. She’d recently called from Miami. I thought, “She’s old enough now to go to Miami by herself. When was the last time we hung out together? What are all the things she’s learned since then, all the things she wonders about now?” I thought about the dust in my apartment, all the furniture I want to replace. All the time off I wish I had, the places I want to go, the people I want to laugh with. I thought — stewed — in front of my computer, taking out my frustration on keyframes and graph handles; the kind of frustration rooted in feelings like: life is too short.
I went to the post office at 1:30pm. I should have known to go later as it was still high lunch hour and the line would be long. Plus, I was spiraling, and everything aggravated me. But I waited.
I was eventually called to a curly-headed, scowling woman. I pulled out my ear buds, said, “I’m sending one letter to LA, and another to the UK. There are bracelets in both of them, so they’re a little heavier than normal. Just want to make sure I have the right amount of postage.”
This is the kind of dull thing this woman has to hear every workday of her life, I thought. Christ.
“UK is $1.50, but put them on the scale,” she pointed. I opened my shoulder bag to retrieve the mail — and then it happened.
If a person could sing without parting her lips, if a hum could take such round viscosity, such dynamism as a full gospel hymn, then that is what she did. Sitting there, clad in her washed-out uniform, she began to hum. Loudly.
It was so abrupt it startled me, this magnificent humming. In an instant I was nine years old again, surrounded by imperfect harmonies in my grandma’s Baptist church in Grainger County, songs I felt unworthy of as a child already losing faith in a traditional God, but still those I wanted to possess, to internalize. Songs heavy with the weight of the unknown, powerful enough to pull the rawest forms of things from the human spirit, things like sorrow, like strength, like forgiveness. Like gratitude.
It was a melody of the pain we keep. In a word: it was beautiful.
And so in the middle of the day in the Rockefeller Center Post Office, I felt like I’d been smacked as she hummed and summoned. I dropped my mail to the scale, conditioned by the city never to emote during public displays of showmanship, and I thought, She doesn’t sound human. And then: Or, perhaps she sounds so very human.
Without looking at me once and with no cease to her hums, as if this entire interaction were as natural as clearing a throat, she handed me my stamps. I took them. I pasted them on my letters. Not knowing what else to do, I handed over my mail and said, “Thank you.” And then, “I appreciate you.”
She didn’t smile at me. She wasn’t there to make my day. She stopped humming only for a moment to say, “Next,” and as soon as I came, it was time for me to go.
On the walk back to my desk, to the day job I’d had for three and a half years, the job I’d learned real skills in, been promoted in, made lifelong friends from, I noticed the clack, clack, clack of my heels on the floor of Rockefeller Center’s underground. I remembered hearing my mother’s heels on our kitchen tiles when I was young. It was a sound I treasured, because I dreamed to be like her. I wanted to work, and love, and do great things. It was, to me, the sound of a good life.
I took the long walk back, listening.