I was supposed to be on a bus going to Massachusetts to see the autumn leaves in their full New England colorful bloom.
However, I chose to take the subway down to the Megabus pick-up location. To board the subway in New York is like checking the Yes I Agree box next to the legal terms when creating your email or social media accounts; technically you could choose not to, but you’re not really willing (or able) to spend the money on the alternative. And the subway works well enough often enough that we stay with it, like a relationship where you’re “not not happy”.
And so I boarded a Downtown-bound 5 train early on the Friday morning that began the Columbus Day extended weekend. One stop into my ride, a middle-aged man entered the car I was riding in wearing a hospital bracelet and patient scrubs with pants whose elastic waistband gave out long ago. This caused him to hold the pants up with one hand while he paced back and forth through multiple subway cars on the train. When his hand tired, the failed waistband revealed that he did not receive any underwear on his way out of the hospital.
The man sat down in the empty seat across from where I stood. The left foot on his high top black and white retro Patrick Ewing swede sneakers no longer had laces, and the sole which was beginning to break apart from the suede revealed a swollen right foot and ankle that looked frightening despite being covered by socks.
“Ladies & Gentlemen, due to a sick passenger on an earlier train we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us, we apologize for the inconvenience.”
The irony was that a sick passenger was breaking down and barely holding on in front of me. In front of us. The working people. The good people. The taxpayers. The subway fare payers. The ones who were just trying to get to work on a Friday morning without having to deal with the sight and smell of a man who’d gotten the worst of life’s breaks.
“He’s very restless, very dirty, he has a hospital wristband. We’re about to stop now. 3rd Avenue-149th St. I’m getting out here. But I just wanted you to know.”
3rd Ave -149th St stop. The man came back to the empty seat and filled it…by laying down and going to sleep.
He fidgeted while he slept, occasionally doing a slow kick/stretch with his right foot. He slept peacefully. Quietly. His right arm folded underneath his head so that his right hand cupped his ear like a memory foam pillow. His head was slightly tucked inside his blue-green, one-pocket hospital scrub shirt.
What does he dream about? How different do his dreams appear from his waking reality? In his dreams is he still an uncomfortable disruption to strangers? Is he still an object of shocking pity and fear? Are his skin color and physical features the same? Is he sleeping on the subway in his dreams?
“That’s him right there.“
149th St-Grand Concourse stop. Two high school aged girls walk by. One girl in a Catholic school skirt and sweater peers through the subway window at the sleeping man with a smile/smirk. Her life continues with possibility and hope. His life continues on this train.
Whether the result of stubbornness, desensitization, or fatigue, New Yorkers have an amazing ability to keep it together in the face of all forms of subway tragedy and/or foolishness. It is sometimes easy to forget that we are trapped inside a steel can with no removable windows while these events take place.
Another middle-aged man boards the train, wearing a hoodie and jeans .
“Guys, I don‘t speak English well. I need your help. It’s not for me. It’s for my last daughter. This is my I.D. guys. This is really true. If you want. If you can help. So I can support my daughter. Thank you. God Bless you.”
The plea is repeated in Spanish. Multiple women from different races offer some coins. I wonder when “the poor and the meek” of this city will get to cash in all the blessings wished upon them pre-and-post donation. There should be a special place in heaven for those who poor from half-full cups into the palms of those too poor to afford cups.
My fellow passengers continue uninterrupted with their books, phones, and music. The man wakes and sits up. He adjusts his foot within his lace-less shoe and lays down again.
138th St stop. People make their way into the train and – following NYC straphanger standard operating procedure – upon spotting a suspiciously empty region of a rush-hour subway car:
(1) Sniff to confirm the smell is safe for human consumption; (2) Check the open area to determine if there are any other risky passengers nearby; (3) Proceed in a single file line shuffle to the other side of the car, so that a 3-5 foot radius is maintained around the sleeping man.
The man wakes, sits up, and then returns to his previous sleeping position.
59th St stop. Four people board the train. They look to the right at what appears to be a break in the tight packed humanity of our car and take a step towards the seat. They spot the sleeping man. Pupils dilated. Brows furrow. Face turns to the left.
42nd St-Grand Central stop. I exit the train and leave the sleeping man to transfer to a westbound 7 train with cosplay enthusiasts headed to Day 2 of NY Comic Con.
There is no Carfax for subway seats. Many people will have sat in the seat in the six weeks since I saw this man sleep and struggle.
On its face, this situation is neither new nor noteworthy. Profound human suffering can be observed in any large city anywhere in the world. While most residents of America’s big cities have the luxury of driving on highways that escort them past areas of concentrated and consistent suffering, residents of New York City are reminded on a nearly daily basis that things don‘t always work out in the end.
What happens when everything will not be okay? What happens if help is not on the way? What happens when help is not enough? What happens when you reached the end of everyone’s rope?
– Day G.
Host, Class of Hope & Change