I was headed home from a hard day at work the other day laden with two bags of groceries. I got on an unusually crowded A train heading north, put my bags at my feet and grasped the handrail above the seats. I stood near the center of the car, where the four seats (Or is it eight? They are two-seat sets back to back.) perpendicular to the outer walls are, knowing that chances for getting a seat are better in this area of the train. If you stand leaning on the door your chances are nil unless the person in the seat right next to the door gets up, and then only if there is no one in front of that seat.
I’d gotten on at Canal Street, and was surprised at how crowded the train was. After all, it was well after rush hour, almost 8. I usually get a seat on this ride, but I imagine the train was late considering how many people were waiting and how many people were on the train.
A panhandler had gotten on at the same time, and now I heard him behind me giving his pitch. He was homeless, he was hungry, he only wanted to stay out of trouble. Any amount would help, any food would help. Then came the punch line:
“One day it could be you. One day it could be you…” He intoned in his deep baritone.
He was African American, in his late 50’s I’d say, and somberly dressed in worn nondescript clothing. He certainly wasn’t sleeping on the sidewalk.
He had a cup, a big white coffee cup like a Starbuck’s Venti cup sans logo, and he walked up and down the aisles with the “It could be you” refrain drumming into my head.
It was already me a long time ago, when I was young and stupid and did not know how to take care of myself, so I knew only just how right he was.
In this city of greedy landlords ready to pounce on a rent subsidized apartment at the squeak of a rat I’m not surprised at how many marginal people find themselves out in the cold.
He was probably an addict trying to hustle up enough for a bag, a rock, or whatever it is they sell in sketchy bodegas nowadays. But having been there myself (I never begged but did find a place to sleep on the subways) I pulled a dollar from my wallet and as he passed me reminding me it could be me I dropped the buck in his cup.
“Thank you and god bless you,” he said.
“Sure, no problem,” I replied, looking him in the eyes. Sometimes they don’t meet your eyes, whether from shame or guilt I’ll never know; but I do know that it’s not up to me to judge the guy.
The second the guy went by I noticed a man that was sitting on the outer seat of one of those four seat pods was looking at me intently. He was dressed in a chambray work shirt, pressed jeans, a sports jacket, and nicely shined black shoes with stylish square toes. His dark hair was slicked back with product. He was about 40 and looked like an Irish boxer. Our eyes met, and I couldn’t tell if it was admiration or distain in his eyes, but he’d certainly had an opinion in my giving the guy money.
At West Fourth Street no one got off, and also at Fourteenth. I banked on Thirty Fourth Street; a lot of people always get off on Thirty-Fourth.
As the train pulled into Thirty-Fourth, two people got up from the seats facing away on the opposite pod from where the boxer sat. I picked up my bags and moved to the seats, but a man who was closer and a woman who had just gotten on the train and lunged for the seat got there first. I sort of sighed dejectedly and set down my bags.
The boxer suddenly stood and said,
“Here, sit down, buddy.” I was really taken aback; no one had ever offered me a seat on the subway before, even when I was on crutches about 20 years ago after an injury.
“Aw, ah, no, that’s alright,” I said. “Unless you’re getting off at the next stop?” I added.
“I am, but that’s beside the point.” He answered. I didn’t ask what the point was, but I gratefully sat down. I looked up at him and said thanks. He gave me a little nod and looked away.
I was glad to be seated, but part of me wondered at the motivation. Should I have refused? I’ve offered seats to older men before and been rebuffed. Should have I rebuffed? It was still a long way to 155th Street, so I really didn’t dwell on it.
Did I look old? I was certainly older than him. Did I look weak?
The train pulled into Forty-Second and the man started for the door. I looked up at him, caught his eye and said,
“Don’t mention it,” he said as he turned to leave.
I had really banked on Forty-Second, surely I would have gotten a seat here, but the only people that got off were standing. And a new wave of people pushed on. Apparently the train was really late.
I got off at 145th Street to change for the C train.
“There’s another train right behind this train.” The conductor announced for the first time.
“One following right behind.” He added for emphasis.
The train left, and sure enough another A pulled in just as my C train also pulled in on the local track. The A train was practically empty. Too bad he hadn’t said anything at Canal Street. I would have waited.