The exception is footwear. Metro riders, especially women, are serious students of footwear. My black boots, in particular, seem to confuse them. I bought these big Ecco boots because I heard they don't slide on the ice. They were as good as advertised, and helped me avoid falls and brain injury last winter. They're clunky-looking, kind of Eastern-Front tired-looking boots, but they were expensive. Metro riders seem to sense their respectable price, but can't reconcile it with the boots' slobby, dusty look. Several times a week I look up to find another Metro rider looking from my oxymoronic feet to my unequivocally slobby head, trying to place me in the footwear-demographic rankings. Of course, the looker invariably looks away, as do I -- we're equally guilty and equally regretting the eye-to-eye faux pas.
The Metro is a liturgy. It took me months to realize this. It's a Mass. There's the first genuflection, ducking from the noise and air of the street down into the passage. In our perexod at Kitai-Gorod, there are always musicians and beggars standing at the first turn. One day I was walking past when I heard someone singing, in perfect American English, "Strangers in the Night." I turned and saw a blind man, the kind of blind person whose eyes seem to have melted down their cheeks. He finished the song and switched to Russian, unaware of how perfectly he had mimicked New York circa 1961. Sometimes he's there with an accordion-player, a man of medieval face, long-nosed and gloomy. Together they make a sad impression, and as I walk past them I look at the faces looming up in the passage and remember articles I've read on the Russian birthrate -- as in there isn't any -- and feel a spasm of facile, sentimental grief. This people, who bypassed, at terrible cost, the suburban plumpening my fat face traces, are now doomed to go in one generation from isolation to extinction. It's briefly unbearable, till the blind singer and the accordion fade behind me.
Then comes the first test: the quickening squirm into the crowd, picking up your pace, swerving like a salmon among the oncoming commuters, dodging your way down to the ticket machines. Then another fine moment, inserting the ticket, being accepted--my ticket, just as good as everybody's!--and merging into the line at the escalator lip.
And those escalators! They may be the very best part of the whole Metro ceremony. They are the enforced contemplation phase of life in Moscow. Everybody knows so well how to space themselves: there must be an empty step above and below each rider. Once you find your step, you can look up and across. If you're going down, you look at those going up; going up, you look at those descending. It's an eye-joust.
This is the one time on the Metro you're allowed to stare as openly as you want -- because there's no chance you'll meet the people you're staring at. The faces are dreamlike, because they move without striding -- they glide into view and then on, out of sight. Each has a second or so at the center of your attention. In the drooling trance you enter on those escalators, whole vocabularies whisper around the people you're processing. One day I was seeing dog breeds: that woman is like a young Clumber Spaniel....
On my earlier trips to Moscow, when I was very much alone, I didn't waste time thinking up descriptions. Instead, I scanned the escalators, window-shopping for a mate: "Her, maybe...or her -- no, too mean-looking...Or that one, she might like me if she knew I have a US passport...." My imaginings were very humble, and came to nothing, of course. The few times a woman looked back, I looked down.
Some of the best escalator moments are the scenes I'll never understand: two Mitilia guys, earnestly facing each other as they descend, writing furiously in identical notebooks as if they were racing to see who could denounce whom first; a fat Orthodox priest carrying a huge paper-wrapped package with a terrified expression; a huggy trio of adolescents, two of whom are absolutely impossible to gender, even though I track them up the whole escalator.