Rarely do I take the subway. The years in which I had to ride the subway day in and day out to school and then to work from the North Bronx to Manhattan had left a long lasting stain of intolerance. Once you have smelled the fumes of the underground, the stench of poverty mixed in with Upper Westside pomposity – all of which, by the way, would sit (or stand, depending on the time of day) side by side in perfect blind harmony – it is hard to go back if you have a choice. Especially for the conscientious few who cannot close their eyes to the discouraging inequalities and their ears to the pleas for help, forgiveness or restitution.
However, now that riding the subway is a matter of pure choice, the rare occasion was presented to me yesterday. And like the past, I was confronted with life in its stark and rare form. Life in New York City is a costly tour of how we separate six degrees and sometimes the experiment explodes right into your face. This ride started off with my eyes closed, slightly drowsy from the Kirkland brand suphedrine which was tirelessly working away at my congested and painful sinus brought on by global warming induced humidity and tropical rains. It was a convenient excuse, I know, to close my eyes to what I was still after all these years scared of seeing. When it happened. A thirty-something year old Latino American couple boarded the train and started asking for money. He had a jar in his hand and picture of his dead daughter in the other, barely six months old. According to the story he told, she had suffocated in a fire and the state was only willing to pay $250 towards the funeral and burial. The man explained that the total cost was closer to two thousand dollars and could we please spare some change. He rambled the story in perfect Spanish and English while his wife followed him up and down the car with a worn out saggy expression on her face that was a mixture of sadness and exhaustion. Was there hunger in her eyes? I could not tell. After a few minutes, the man said that if we could not spare change, a blessing would do him equally well. Suddenly to my left, a loud shrill voice came piercing across the car that said, “Shut up! Shut up!” I quickly looked to where the voice was coming from, my eyes like darts following every single other set of eyes in the car, landed on this very petite white woman dressed in a blue blazer with a broad white color reading a magazine. The father with the jar in his hands began to slowly walk towards the voice and he sputtered, “What?” And she repeated just as forcefully, “I said, shut up! Be quiet! You are illegal. It is illegal to panhandle aggressively and you are panhandling aggressively!” The man was stunned as everyone else was in the car. We could not quite figure out what we were more shocked about – whether it was the fact that this woman had the courage to confront this man who was twice her size or if it was the fact that she had dared to tell someone begging for money to bury his dead child to shut up! The wife quickly ran to her husband’s side and begged him to leave it alone and move on. “Leave it alone?” the man said, obviously shocked himself and upset. He continued on telling his story, but not as convincingly as he had started. The wife waited for him at the end of the car ready to exit when the husband slowly walked back over to the petite white woman who had protested his right to panhandle on the train. He stood in front of her and said, “Bitch. You will surely go to hell!” and started back towards his wife. On his way out, he passed by an older couple that was watching the whole thing. The old man held out a dollar bill and in Spanish said to the desperate father, “No! Don’t do that. Do not talk to her like that. Leave her alone. You must not confuse people. Like that, you confuse people. If you are asking legitimately, then you must stay focused and move on.” And with this he dropped the bill in the man’s jar just before he went out.
As I sat quietly under the tense air that slowly dissipated with each passing subway stop, I realized that I too had wanted to close my eyes on the way down to the city. That my dislike for riding the subway is about my intolerance for suffering and the constant reminder of the savage inequalities that stain our city. How difficult it is to bare witness to so much pain when witnesses are what we most need today. Yet, while it might be easier to close my eyes, I was grateful for that shrill voice that woke me up that day. A self-righteous voice that commanded another human being to silence using the words “illegal” to defend her position. She startled me and the whole scene lingers in my mind. Especially, the echo of the gentle stranger’s voice who so well summed up all of our feelings that had raced through our bodies in just a few minutes. His simple but wise words that he offered all of us while giving the father money – “Don’t — Don’t do that. Because it confuses us all. If you are legitimate, you must remain focused and continue on.”