Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tales In Transit

Before he even steps onto the subway car, the previously crowded area around me magically becomes spacious as fellow straphangers move away. Carrying his various plastic bags filled with the flotsam of transient life and all of his worldly possessions, the homeless man takes a seat on the bench across from me.

The stench of days-old urine washes over me in mild waves as he glances around the car with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. If he didn't know that he's a pariah before getting on the train, he knows now.

His gaze settles on me, the lone person remaining in the vicinity; the rest of the passengers have all grouped crowded in opposite ends of the car trying to make themselves as physically distant from this walking wreckage of a man as possible. I look back at him. He's disheveled. He smells very bad, enough to make me pause the shiur I'm listening to and attempt to breathe only through my mouth for the duration of our companionship. As we hurtle through the underground tunnels of New York City to very different destinations I ruminate on our commonalities, ignoring that instinct in my legs that urges me to join the rest of the passengers and remove myself from his presence as fast as possible.

He's rubbing his hands, trying to get some warmth in them before he has to go back out into the frigid surface. Who is he? How did he get here?

By "here", I mean this station in life, not the station on 34th street...

I find it very difficult to empathize with this man; by witnessing what he lacks I become that much more aware of what I don't - and I offer a silent prayer of thanks to God.

Perhaps he's made all the wrong choices in life. I can relate to that; our capacity to make choices is what distinguishes us from others, and those choices lead us down very interesting paths.

As I accidentally catch a whiff again, my legs remind me that the "normal" thing to do would be to GO and not look back, not allow myself to care, perhaps even judge this man without knowing him. But I can't move - I cannot allow myself to rob him of another shred of dignity by expressing my unwillingness to share even a brief moment of time and space with him. He's a human being, and my compassion is aroused enough to quiet down that voice of self preservation.

And he notices it. When he finally stands to get off at the next stop, a barely perceptible nod in my direction tells me that he recognized what I "did" for him.

I nod back.

The reality is, he did more for me than I did for him.

No comments: