Judge a Book by Its Cover

     book2

     I judge people; however, I don’t judge simply by appearances as so many do. I judge based on the placement of body and the way their eyes shift or by a nervous tick in their jaw. People can give away so much without saying a word and that is what I find amusing.

            Flicker, flicker. The cold, metal rail I clutch offers the stability I need as the subway lurches along, delivering the subjects of my thoughts to their destinations. The gentleman to my right clearly expects a promotion today. The normal, mundane black suit is spotless as always, but he has an almost imperceptible smile that borders on cocky to match the gleam in his eye. He sits tall on the plastic seat, so at odds with the teenager in sweats sitting next to him. I let my gaze study this person for a moment before reaching my conclusion. Student, on break for the holiday as Christmas swiftly approaches. Headphones are the cause of the incessant head bobbing and his fingers tap the gray fabric as if trying to keep the beat. Most likely the son of a wealthy investor who has no use for a job and is heading for that convenience store downtown where he can flash a fake ID and get a pack of cheap beer.

            Screech, lurch, screech, stop. As the subway doors open, a flood of people step out as more come in, and they all transform into salmon attempting to swim upstream. Everyone is in each other’s way, and there’s that moment of panic that the doors of the car will slam shut and deny you access. As always everyone makes it in who can, and the anxious breath releases from your lungs. Shifting my purse to my other shoulder, I take in this new group of humanity determined to learn their stories before the next stop.

            Lurch. A heavy shoulder pushes into mine, almost buckling my knees with the force of both man and subway.

     “Pardon me”, a voice speaks. Regaining my footing, I look up to see hazel eyes that peer out from a wool hat tugged low and a scarf covering half a face.

     “No problem,” I hear myself say. As quickly as he had come, he moves on, sidestepping passengers and moving down the car. He isn’t wearing professional clothing. Blue collar? A brown, leather messenger bag swings from his shoulder. Student? He strikes up a conversation with a middle aged woman who has her hair tied in a tight bun. Even in her flats she is pointing her toes, and her impeccable posture concludes: ballet mistress.

     What is it about subways that bring people together? Strangers from various countries and all professions of life swirl in the melting pot of the underground train. And that’s where I come into play. Julianne Winters, assistant manager of Barnes and Noble in Manhattan near the Upper East Side, author of every person on this subway.

                                                                                    *

            I stroll nonchalantly through the store, eyeing shoppers and potential buyers who peruse books like ancient artifacts. As I walk I attempt to figure out each character in this store. To my right, a woman in her late twenties, around my age, reads the back of a fitness book. Her slightly chunky body reveals her desire to lose weight. The next aisle down showcases an elderly gentleman, fishing cap on head and a slight limp as he walks. Fisherman and a war veteran. The sound of my heels clicking on the tile floor is drowned out by the wail of an infant, and I soon see a slightly frazzled young woman cradling the child. By all appearances she was too young to be a mother, so I conclude she must be one of the highly paid nannies of the Upper East Side.

     Arriving at the back end of the store where my office was located, I almost didn’t stop until an object in my periphery caught my attention. Pivoting, I peered through the line of customers waiting for their order at the café and slowly walked forward. There. Sitting at the middle chair, coffee cup to his right and laptop comfortably on his lap, was the man from the subway. I recognized the wool hat, although it wasn’t pulled down so far. The scarf lay across the back of the plush chair while a slight smile lit his face as he focused on the screen of his computer. Who was he? It irked me that I had never taken notice of him before, or maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t put a pin on his character.

     “Julianne?” Startled, I turn and nearly bump into the manager.

    “Oh, good morning, Sharon.”

     Ah, Sharon. She was an easy character to understand. Keeping up on recent events and world news, she was a fountain of information but quirky as the day is long, which explained her vintage suits and 80’s haircut. How we became fast friends, I’ll never know, especially in light of the fact she was thirty years my senior.

     “What are you staring at, darling?” she inquired. My gaze went back to the mysterious man and she chuckled. “Ah, I see…you know, for a self-proclaimed celibate I’m surprised to see he’s garnered your attention.”

     I sighed, somewhat impatiently. “Sharon, I’ve told you before many times. I’m not a self-proclaimed celibate; I’m a woman who is focused on her career who happens to be single and with no interest in a relationship. You gave me that title on your own.” I began my walk to the office again, leaving Sharon to trail me.

     “Oh, I know, dear. But what harm would there be to initiate at least a conversation?”

     I swirled back around with a smirk on my face. “Sharon. You ask me this every Monday morning as if something grand happened over the weekend. I just don’t have the time nor the inclination to be in a relationship. I like men perfectly well, but I like my career more. Is that such a crime?”

     She placed her hands on her slim hips and her hot pink lips puckered. “No…” she groused. “But I know you were here on Saturday. I saw the time cards from the past week when I came in this morning. You’re a workaholic, you know that?”

     I smiled. “Sharon, you can try to label me all you want. I know you’re just trying to help me create a social life, and I appreciate that. But having this store and you are plenty for me.”

     She shook her head and sighed. “Fine, you win. But I won’t give you a raise until you speak with that man out there.”

     I looped an arm through hers. “That’s blackmail, you know. And I won’t fall for it.” H

     Her soft hands patted mine. “You need the challenge, dear girl. I don’t think I’m quite enough for you.”

     I could barely smile as her statement barbed. Workaholic… no one can place a label on me.

                                                                        *

     The gray dragon swallowed up people a little after five o’clock, marking the end of another Monday. I shifted my purse strap on my shoulder, securing it as we jostled back and forth to find a spot to sit or stand. I took my usual place, clutching the hand rail and began my scan from left to right. A little girl, probably around five or six judging from the way her eyes shifted from me to her mother, sat swinging her legs. Most likely in school all day and then to daycare, wanting to get home and eat dinner. Her mother is a waitress, and the dark circles under her eyes indicate the day is not over. She probably has a night shift she works, too.

     Almost directly across from me stands a young man of Hispanic descent, a lecherous grin on his lips. The wink he gave me and comfortable slouch suggests a cockiness that isn’t easily swayed. I looked away before he could perform the vulgar motion I knew he was about to direct toward me. There were quite a few white collars on the subway today, some chatting with another, talking on blue tooth, or drumming fingers on briefcases. There was an air of tension and sophistication, as if each individual thought they carried the weight of the world or were expected to.

     Suddenly, I saw him. The man that bumped into me that morning and who was sitting at the café in the store. He was speaking with a business man, quite engaged in their conversation. He seemed at ease but kept a hand protectively over his computer bag. Why couldn’t I figure out who he was? Life is like a poker game where people have a “tell” when it comes to their profession or way of life. It’s either in their posture, their clothing, their body language, or how they communicate. This particular man had clothing that was in juxtaposition to his designer computer bag, and the carefree nature in which he initiated conversations with strangers belied the heaviness of the air around him. Who was he?

                                                                        *

     Weeks went by and the Christmas holiday marked the passage of time. Business went as usual in the store and I found myself getting…bored. Not by life in general but by the people in life. The thrill of judging one’s way of life had continued to seep out of me ever since I laid eyes on the man in the subway. He was the ever-present thought in my subconscious and I did not want to simply know who he was and move on, but I wanted to know what he thought and how he saw people.

     This particular afternoon I was about to check on a display for the midwinter season when I saw him again! Much to my chagrin, I ducked behind a shelf of self-help books. I cocked an eyebrow. How ironic.

     As he walked confidently across the tan and green tile of the main aisle towards the café, his computer bag slapped his left thigh, keeping rhythm with his gait. He stood behind the first customer, scanning the blackboard above him. When it was his turn, he greeted the barista and ordered a coffee and some kind of soup, then sat down at the nearest available chair. I shook my head. I was acting like a child! I was the assistant manager for goodness’ sake, and I was a confident businesswoman! Straightening my dark purple, knee length shift and rubbing my hands down the mesh sleeves, I gathered my courage and determined that my curiosity would carry me through my nervousness.

     His tanned hands tugged a black laptop out of the bag, and he opened the top then turned on the power. After that he fished around in an outside pocket and removed a tape recorder, then proceeded to reveal a notebook as well. I slowly ascended the short staircase to the café, keeping my eyes on this stranger. The closer I came, I mentally rehearsed what I would say…hello? Nice to meet you? May I ask what you’re doing? No…I’ll simply ask him how his service was and if he was enjoying his meal. Then I could ask him what he does with that laptop. But with more subtlety.

     “Good morning.” I flashed a smile, attempting my best to use charm. He raised those hazel eyes to me and my stomach flipped involuntarily when I saw the depth in them. A beautiful smile graced the width of a tan face, and his coffee-colored hair was stylishly cut.

     “Morning,” he replied, then squinted. “Aren’t you…the girl I bumped into on the subway the other day?”

     I chuckled. “Actually, that was a couple of weeks ago. But time has a habit of passing quickly when you’re occupied. I actually wanted to ask how your service was today and if there’s anything I else I can offer you.” I wrapped my hands around each other, determined not to pull on the ends of my hair as I was prone to do when nervous.

     “It is excellent, thank you. Are you the manager?” He took a sip of coffee.

     “No, assistant manager. I do hope to be manager one day. Being in charge of all these books is wonderful.” I made a sweeping motion with my hand and felt pride rise within me.

    “Manager of a book store, huh? I’d love to interview you sometime. You could be another character in my novel.”

    I took a step forward with this declaration. “You’re a writer,” I said, more a statement than a question. That’s why I couldn’t label him. He lived a varied lifestyle, delving into the minds and worlds of people around him, seeking their story.

     “Yes, I am. Well, budding writer, I should say. I was in the seminary at St. Joseph’s north of the Bronx, but I’m taking a year off to do mission work through St. Patrick’s cathedral and discern my vocation. It’s also giving me the time to dig deeper into writing and discovering the inhabitants of this great city.”

     I nodded. “I try to figure out people, too, but it’s not always easy. I need time to read them before they pass me, but most of the time I take a wild guess.” The enthusiasm bubbling up inside me quickly dissipated as I saw…disapproval emanating from those captivating eyes.

     “You judge people before you even speak with them?” His question cut me to the quick, forcing a blush to my cheeks.

     “Well…I…I can’t help it. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.”

     He interlaced his fingers in front of the keyboard. “Tell me, do you judge a book by its cover?” My hesitation prompted him to continue. “How do you know what’s inside the book if you simply glance at the outside? You could pass up the opportunity to read the greatest book in the world all because you weren’t attracted to the cover. That would be a pretty disappointing thing, wouldn’t it?”

      I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. The blush on my face caused a lump to form in my throat while tears threatened to spill. I had never had someone challenge me before like this, and it made me appear…shallow. Cold and calculating…inhumane to a degree. I was reducing a human being’s existence to the notions I created.

     He cleared his throat, as if sensing my discomfort. “But here I am, being rude in my own way by lecturing you when I didn’t even tell you my name. I’m Simon, though you probably have no interest in learning my name anymore.” The boyish smile on his face that no doubt charmed girls and women alike simply added to the embarrassment gnawing at my gut.

     “Julianne,” I murmured, pivoting and descending the short staircase. I thought I heard him utter another social formality such as, “nice to meet you”, but at the moment all I cared about was making it to my office without shedding tears profusely.

                                                                        *

     How had I done it? My life up until that moment was a whirlpool of judgement and cynicism. Sitting on the slightly worn carpet in the living room of my flat, I played with the floppy ears of my oldest stuffed animal, Scooter the dog. He stared back at me as I kept myself propped up with the matching pillows of my indoor décor set. Why wasn’t I sitting on my hand-me-down couch from my parents? I think I wanted to make myself uncomfortable. But my flat was anything but uncomfortable, because my parents had set me up in a contemporary complex that was fitting for an assistant manager of B&N. Although some of the furniture used to be theirs, it was still in tiptop shape. I scanned the room back and forth. Maybe it was the lifestyle I was born into and the lifestyle I created. I saw things for their net worth. Was Simon right? Was I cheating myself out of learning all about the adventures of life? Even if I didn’t experience them personally, I could learn so much simply by listening to other people’s stories.

     I wanted more. I wanted more than just seeing a person’s outward appearance. I wanted to see inside their souls. I had never been one to go to church except for special occasions, but I liked to think there was more to this life than just the everyday. There had to be something…after it all. Why else would I be feeling this desire to learn about a person’s soul? I think I had been afraid…afraid of what I might find in myself and see how much I was lacking. I ran a hand over Scooter’s still-fluffy fur. Tomorrow was a new day, and I was determined to start fresh.

                                                                        *

     The scent of freshly brewed coffee wafted over me as I skirted around customers, almost giddy at the prospect of starting anew. My heart fluttered disappointedly when I thought I didn’t see Simon, but I caught sight of him sitting farther back than the prior week. I had taken time to really think about what Simon said to me and examine how I was leading my life. I had even begun to flip through a couple of Christian books, skimming passages here and there and finding comfort in their words. I had so many questions. Locking in on Simon, I giggled at the concentrated look of his face, fingers flying over the keys of his laptop. I plunked down in the chair across from him and smiled, relishing the look of surprise and delight on his handsome face.

“Hi, I’m Julianne. I’d really like to hear your story.” I clasped my hands on my knees and waited. It was time to listen.

By Hannah Vincent

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