I was catching the L train uptown to the A to get to work for the 116th time this year. As usual, bleary-eyed and half asleep, I stumbled to my favorite seat, which is most always vacant at this hour. Another 10 minutes and the car will be jammed full, but at 6:27 am all the early regulars get our own subway thrones. Usually by the time the train hits Halsey, its rhythm has rocked me back to a snooze. I look forward to those few precious moments before the doors snap open and the daily rat race begins.
Except this morning, wouldn’t you know it, I’m being disturbed by a couple of loud mouths. They’re rattling on about something, I can't help but overhear. Arguing, arguing, all they do is argue, annoying everyone around them. Both are opinionated sorts of guys who think the world's entitled to their opinion.
“Listen here, Madison,” says one. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...”
“Nonsense, Jefferson,” bawls the other. “Each individual is blessed or cursed, depending on their unequal abilities of acquiring property.”
“See here Madison, it says right here,” cavils the one called Jefferson. He’s madly waving aloft his iPhone with a limey green screen all aglow -- at 6:35 in the morning, mind you – reading aloud and pointing to a line about locks or by Locke or something like that. I can’t quite make out what.
“Men being by nature all free, equal, and independent...” Jefferson points to the passage with his finger, like it’s Scripture. “You see? It says right here, under your very nose -- free and equal!”
Hoo boy, I think to myself, here we go. They won’t settle this one for centuries.
Madison shakes his head. He’s a short fellow with ruddy cheeks, and a first class know-it-all. Probably debates endlessly whether the '61 Yanks were better than the '55 Brooklyn Dodgers or the ’73 Knicks. You know the type.
“There, there, Jefferson, it’s as plain as the powder on the King’s wig, isn’t it? As a result of our unequal abilities of acquiring property, some people end up with more and others end up with less. Inequality is the natural order of things, that’s how the Creator made us…isn’t it obvious?”
Is that it, I thought? Madison said it with such lofty conviction, like this was some sort of major revelation. Heaven spare us, it’s 6:39 in the morning!
Jefferson was similarly unimpressed, and scoffed at the notion. He was quite a bit taller than Madison, with red hair all aflame. He puffed up his chest, as if stature alone might win the argument.
“Equal!” he barked.
“Not!” countered Madison.
Back and forth, back and forth. Alright already! Which is it, boys, which of you are we to believe? Either we are created equal or we’re not, you can’t have it both ways! I covered my face with my newspaper and tried to ignore them, praying they would settle the question later. Instead, they growled louder, rising above the scrape of the train wheels.
About 1st Ave, Madison decides to up the ante. He shouts out to anyone within earshot: “How many here think that all men are created equal?”
It’s 6:45 in the morning, mind you. Glazed eyes snap awake long enough to glare menacingly at this lilliputian madman.
“What about women?” yawns a woman near the back of the car. Madison ignores her.
“You see there?” he taunts Jefferson. “No one agrees with you. Unequal in abilities, and unequal in acquiring property -- forming an insurmountable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. And the protection of that property is the first object of government.”
Ah, I get it now. This Madison’s one of those anti-tax, anti-big government fanatics. Maybe a John Bircher or Ayn Rand militant. Now that he's got his, he wants to pull up the drawbridge. Oh, the nerve of some people!
Jefferson just stands there, kind of hanging his head. Come on man, defend yourself, thinks the idealist in me. But Jefferson sees that his ‘All men are created equal’ line isn’t going to sell, not at this ungodly hour, not with this crowd. If his maxim were true, how come we’re all stuck here bouncing in this subway like sardines in a can, while our bosses are chauffeured to work late, or worse yet call the shots from their posh homes in Greenwich or Mt. Kisco?
All men are created equal -- yeah, right. Good one.
Jefferson scratches his head, trying to think of a good comeback. Mercifully for the rest of us, he couldn’t. But did that satisfy Madison? Not a whit.
“The causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” smirked Madison. “The unequal nature of man.”
His pompous air made my teeth grind. I felt like shouting at him, ‘Not very distant, are we Mr. Madison, from the Law of the Jungle? Not as removed or evolved as we like to think about ourselves? Welcome to western civilization, and its over-rated casino capitalism. Welcome to life in the food chain!’
I was getting worked up and now muttering loud enough to get a double-take from my seat mate. “The authorities should be more careful about who they allow on the subway,” I tried to explain, gesturing over my shoulder toward the unrelenting pair.
She nodded and smiled back. It was a strategic response, most New Yorkers know better than to disagree with a stranger, especially one who is muttering to himself. No telling who's packing what these days.
6:58, it was my stop, and that Madison really had me rattled. A question now was nagging in my brain that was to disturb me the rest of the day. “Are we equals or are we not?” The question begged an answer. You can’t have it both ways.
One other disembarking passenger, noticing my agitation, leaned over and whispered consolingly in my ear.
“It’s true,” he said, “we are all equal—but some are more equal than others.” And then he vanished into the rush hour crush of bodies. I found out later his name was Orwell.