Youth on the E train from Cortlandt street to Penn Station is much, much different. I sat, mesmerized, on the bench yesterday afternoon as three high-school kids in immaculate, head-to-toe basketball uniforms twisted their fingers into configurations that I’ve never seen before. And I watched a lot of Zoom! as a kid.
The teenager on the bench across from me was the master, and the two next to me were his apprentices. He started by making “crab hands”: twisting each set of fingers together, then making claws, holding out a set of cross-hatched fingers that looked like every bone had been broken. It was cool, but I know how to do that. Next, though, he made an alligator head. Not a shadow-puppet alligator head, an actual alligator head, in three dimensions, with slanty pupils rolling in hooded eye sockets and a long, antediluvian mouth that opens and closes. That got my attention, all right. I tried to see how he did it, but the process involved not only twisting fingers together, but some kind of quick wrist snap to get the ring fingers crossed over the back of the opposite hand, and the pinky finger curled around to the front. I spent three weeks in eighth grade learning how to snap my finger on a smokeless-tobacco tin lid; compared to what I was seeing on the train now, I might have well been learning to point, or slaving away to try to make an “okay!” sign.
It didn’t stop there, though. The kids were signing to each other, back and forth, making sigils that had poems accompanying them. “Do the one about the mom!” said the boy to my left, and the teenaged girl held up a complicated unit that looked like a backwards “3”, pointer fingers quivering in opposite directions. “I’m gonna… tell on you!” she chanted “I’m gonna keep my finger like this… all… day! I’m gonna … tell on you!”
The other kids nodded and laughed politely. Clearly, they knew this one already.
Finally, the kid on the bench across the way pursed his lips in concentration and hunched over with his hands clamped into his stomach. I glanced around the car; I couldn’t believe I was the only one amazed by this. The pair next to me waited silently, not wanting to interrupt the adept at his work.
He sat up triumphantly, each arm twisted in a different direction. Held next to his shirt, fingers clenched and pointing every which way, was a CURSIVE WORD. Let me repeat that: A WORD IN CURSIVE. I have no idea what it was; it was like reading sanskrit. But both teens next to me sighed appreciatively. “You see the ‘G’, right?” “Yeah, I see it. That’s dope.”