Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pavlov’s smile

My hands are freezing in the biting cold and the wind blows sharply and painfully against my ears, so ridiculously exposed beneath my big black hat. My obligatory navy-blue suit trousers do not offer half the protection of thick denim or corduroy so my legs beg for some added padding while my torso, under an overcoat, a long jacket, tsitsit (a fringed woollen shawl worn under the garments), a shirt and a cotton t-shirt vest, simmers gently. A group of my friends, all dressed identically, are walking a little ahead and I watch as they walk four abreast, laughingly oblivious to the other users on the street.

I observe a young lady out walking her dog step off the pavement into the road, all too aware of the startled jumps and scared avoidment she can expect if she tries to pass the group. She is wearing sneakers and pants and a simple winter jacket and she does not look at all cold. My friends say pork keeps you warmer than beef does. I wonder to myself whether they can pick out the vegetarians from the crowd by their shivering but do not bother to make the point. I acknowledge her as she rejoins the footpath and passes me. I smile to her. She looks surprised. She self-consciously shakes the lead of her dog and walks on looking back at least once I suspect although I do not check.

A tall Pole, new to the country judging by his typical haircut and brandless sneakers, warm as toast in his down-filled jacket and long woollen scarf, edges slightly away so as not to pass me too closely. His head and eyes, however, follow the orbit of our arc, watching me as we pass. I wonder to myself what would happen if I were to smile to him but do not bother as his eyes are by now fixed firmly on the retreating figure behind me. Maybe he thinks she is looking back at him?

A young couple walk past holding hands and laughing. I know them. I see him every morning rushing to catch the bus as I make my way to shul. He works for London Transport he told me and she is a trainee nurse. This morning they are walking unhurriedly together as if on cloud nine, completely impervious to the sub-zero temperatures. I smile to them and they smile back.

His nose is reddened by the cold and his big black hat sits high on top of his head leaving his ears exposed to the elements. He rubs them every two minutes in a futile attempt to warm them. I have often wondered why the Jews on the Hill wear their distinctive clothes as if the function of identification with the group were more important than protection from the elements. His long overcoat and dark pants and shoes actually look right for the time of the year if not the century.

He is walking behind a group of Chassidim who only acknowledge my existence to ensure that Rover does not come close to them. Do they really think I live with a vicious canine threat in the house? I have tried to explain so many times that he won’t hurt them, to no avail. I step off the pavement as I pass them neither expecting nor receiving thanks. He is dawdling slightly behind the other group and leers at me as we pass. I ignore him and continue.

I do sense someone staring at me as I walk on and I am sure he is turning back. Did Rover frighten him? He did not seem scared. Maybe he was interested in me or he wanted something. I turn back and catch the eye of a tall blonde hunk. He smiles to me and I smile back. It feels like a good day. Then a mixed-race teenage couple stroll into view and block him out. Damn them.

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