On a snowy afternoon in January, I plopped into my seat on the Jitney. I was coming off a weekend with hosts who’d fought viscously in front of me. Peace, at last, I thought, and retrieved a juicy novel from my bag.
As the bus pulled away from the next stop, South Hampton, the sound of a new passenger’s voice caressed my ears in a soft blanket of seduction and pleasure. Not typically a New York way of speaking, she expressed herself with professional airs and an agenda of charm, including just enough bubble to keep her voice fresh. Of Korean descent, she was dressed in tangerine dimpled pants and a white fuzzy angora sweater. As she made her way toward my row, she attempted to engage everyone around her. I crouched turtle shell style to the window. With two hours in front of me, my strategy boiled down to this: no involvement whatsoever with another person all the way through the Midtown Tunnel.
She sat next to me.
The book ended about 10 miles before the East River. The second I closed the cover, my fellow passenger angled toward me and said, “What do you do?” I told her I was a writer and she said, “You should write about the Russian prostitutes who lost their careers when the bottom dropped out of Wall Street in 2008.”
“I don’t know a thing about that subject,” I said.
“I do. Ask me.”
“What do you do?” I said, hoping to deflect the conversation away from what she thought I should write.
“I’m a writer, too. Why don’t you write about what happens to women when they hit 50, how they stop caring about all kinds of stuff they thought was really important.” She had her hand on my arm by then, placed there with the weight of knowing we both knew.
“That subject I know intimately,“ I said, “but my genres are well-being and storytelling. Maybe YOU should write about those two ideas.”
“Women over 40 in America are through,” she said. “They’re kaput. But I’m not because I have better manners than most women; especially American women.”
Unable to detect an accent, I said, “Where were you born?”
“Here, the U.S.,” she said, and at that, her big rabbit fur hat began to flutter like waves of downy grain as she leaned into her subject of expertise. “American women lose their sex appeal because of poor manners.” It sounded like an oft-repeated speech, but it also occurred to me that I had offended her because I didn’t grab onto her ideas for my writing career.
Under her hat was a fringe of soft black bangs that hung just above her dark and lively pupils. I looked closely into them to see if I could determine her age and mental state. “I used to be gorgeous,” she said, “Just gorgeous.”
“You still look really good,” I offered, wondering what was coming next.
She continued. “I’m 52, and last night at a party a guy invited me to spend July on a 75-foot sailboat in Croatia. It’s because of my manners, that’s why he wanted me around.”
“Are you going?” I said.
“Well, I came home and called an old boyfriend,” at this point, she elbowed me in the ribs and winked at the word ‘boyfriend.’ “He said, ‘That’s a kid’s boat. You can do better than that. Come with me on my 125-footer.’ He is not my boyfriend anymore,” she said, as she jabbed me again, “if you know what I mean.” At that moment, I had no clue, but the use of my body for her emphasis was not sitting well with me.
“You should write about me,” she said, “and you can’t use my name. My life in New York has been great, but I live in London where I’m really struggling. Here, write down my email address.”
As we entered the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel, I obediently retrieved a pen and notebook. While peering over my shoulder, she yelled shrilly, “Gimme that! You can’t write an email address in cursive!” Instead of acquiescing when she grabbed for the pen, I did something completely out of character. I fought her like a roller derby star. She let go because I wouldn’t.
The names on her Jitney reservation and her email address matched, and a follow-up Google search produced a few dozen women, but none were the person I met. There was nil published under her name, so the writer she claimed to be was probably not true. The moment I decided to quit wasting time on an untraceable person, a phrase popped into my head: Madame Manners, Currently of London.