“What are you wearing?” I asked.
“What?” he responded. He surveyed his chest. “This?” He then gripped a thin gold chain on his neck.
“No. Your hat, man,” I said. “What does it mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Nothing,” he responded. “It just matched my shoes.”
“Ah, OK. … Hey, I’m Simon.”
“Are you from New York?” I asked.
“Yeah. Born and raised in the Bronx.”
“Right on,” I said.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“The West. Denver, specifically.”
“Ah, visiting then.”
“No,” I blurted. “I live here now—in Brooklyn.”
“That’s cool,” he said, nodding.
“Hey, you know,” I shouted over the groan of the zipping train, “… I actually do know what your hat means. I was just wondering if you did.”
“Oh yeah? I thought it was just a [dope] hat.”
“Well it’s actually a batting practice cap that was discontinued. It’s called the ‘Screaming Savage;’ it’s an Atlanta Braves hat.”
“No shit? … I didn’t know that.”
“Where’d you get it from?” I asked.
“I don’t know … somewhere here on the Upper West Side … at some shop.”
“I see,” I said. “… You know—I didn’t know this coming out here—but there are actually a lot of Native Americans who live in New York City.”
“I didn’t know that,” he said as he eyed me, probably wondering where I, the stranger, was headed with this random chat.
“I’m one of ‘em,” I said. “Well, sort of. I’m also Mexican.”
“Well, Mexicans are Indians in a way too, right?” he said.
“Damn right, man!” I bellowed with an obvious tincture of Brown pride.
PAUSE FOR A LONG BLARE OF THE TRAIN’S WHISTLE AS IT PULLS TO A HARD STOP INTO COLUMBUS CIRCLE AT 59TH AND BROADWAY.
“So I guess my hat offends you then, huh?” he said as a funnel of railriders loaded onto the railcar. One man had on a crisp, blue, fitted suit and was scanning a wet Wall Street Journal; another had somehow managed to position a muddy mountain bike next to him.
“Why do you ask?” I responded.
“Because you brought it up,” he shouted.
“It offends me, right, but I know why you’re wearing it.”
“Because you were taught by someone somewhere that it was OK to wear things like that,” I said.
“Next stop, 42nd Street, Times Square,” mumbled a voice over the speaker. “Next stop, ladies and gentlemen, will be 42nd Street, Times Square.”
“Look, we just left Columbus Circle, right?” I began. “And there’s that massive monument in the middle of the circle to a man who was inarguably guilty of genocide. …”
TWO HARD WHISTLES BLARE ONCE AGAIN FROM THE METAL TUBE NOW TRAVELING AT WHAT FEELS LIKE 60 MPH.
“Next stop: 34th Street, Penn Station,” muffled the conductor.
“Yeah …” he began. “But it is what it is.”
“It is what it is because we let it be what it is,” I said. “I’m not offended that you’re wearing that hat, man. I’m offended that we live in a country where people believe it’s all right to make and sell things like that. It’s just not.”
Suddenly we both realized a couple sitting immediately across from us hadn’t said a word to each other since they boarded at Columbus Circle. They were obviously eavesdropping, but they feigned like they were on their phones.
“I think they’re actually listening to us,” I said.
“You know they are. There’s no service in subways,” he said.
“Where are you getting off?” I asked.
“Christopher Street. I need to go deeper into the Village,” I said. “I’ve got a meeting with some folks. We’ll have sushi and talk business.”
PAUSE FOR AN EXPLOSION OF LAUGHTER FROM A CROWD OF YOUNG MEN GRIPPING DINGY SUBWAY POLES.
“You don’t care that I’m recording this, right?”
“Yeah, right here.” I pulled out my tape recorder from my chest pocket. The red light glistened like the eye of white lab rat.
“Why do you have that?” he asked.
“I’m a journalist, man. I keep this thing on when I’m on the train. I hear the wildest stories on here—some better than any book I’ve ever read.”
“That’s a hyperbole.”
“That is a hyperbole,” I chuckled.
“Nah, I don’t care, dude. Do your thing.”
“Next stop: 14th Street,” grumbled the voice. “Next. Stop. 14th Street. …”
“That’s me,” he said.
“Cool. It was good to meet you.”
“Yeah. You, too,” he said. “Careful in Brooklyn. Don’t look Denver, if you can. Look Brooklyn.”
“I was actually thinking of growing a beard,” I replied. “And then maybe I’ll start eating vegan and roll up my jeans at the ankles. I’ve already got the black-rimmed glasses.”
“Hipster Central,” he chuckled.
The train had come to a full stop at 14th Street.
“Alright, dude. I’m outta here,” he said. “Enjoy Brooklyn.”
“Enjoy your hat.”
He just smiled. So did I.
The doors slipped shut and the train took off again. The roar of the machine echoed throughout its guts.
What a hat, I thought. … What a city.
Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, is a Master of Arts graduate from Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City.