For me, like for many New Yorkers, the subway ride is no great thrill. It’s part of the everyday routine, like getting coffee from the deli or taking a free copy of AM New York to skim through the latest news. Each time I step into the car with my fellow straphangers, I see the same advertisements and Poetry in Motion, I hear the same sounds, and know all the stops. I have to think that it must be for visitors however, a fascinating and sometimes even memorable experience, especially for those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of public transportation. This past summer I couldn’t help but notice the throngs of curious tourists sitting around me speaking to one another in foreign sing-song, deciphering Manhattan street maps, soaking in the energy around them (and perhaps thinking we’re all rather crazy).
One morning I almost agreed.
The scene seemed ordinary enough, a typical Friday morning with a mix of locals and visitors on board the train together. The car I was in happened however to be uncharacteristically empty. Thus, most of us were seated and still there was some empty standing room. In the middle of the car there was a man in a wheelchair. He looked homeless, in heavy clothing that despite boiling temperatures seems to be normal for people living on the streets. He was slumped over, sleeping I supposed. Handicapped and homeless, I thought—pretty sad. The train zoomed along the tracks at a speed so fast it made me nervous. But before sweaty palms arrived I felt the pull of the breaks coming to my rescue. Comfortable once again, I began a silent hum to my ipod. Then all of a sudden I noticed the wheelchair rolling. Rolling, rolling and then crash—the edge of its right front wheel straight into the base of the row of seats across from me. And from his own seat, our homeless, handicapped co-passenger did a nose-dive straight for the speckled linoleum floor. Oh My God! I remember thinking, sure this same thought was going through everyone else’s mind too as I noticed each of their wide eyes and dropped jaws.
Sadly…not one of us moved. In awe, we sat there horrified, frozen, unable to move, unsure of whether we should reach out and touch this weathered, soiled and yes, scruffy man who lay on the floor in front of us, likely hurt, possibly broken. (As I reflect on this, my words are painful to write. What kind of horrible human being am I? What horrible human beings were all of us?) But then, as if by way of divine intervention it was as if we were collectively pardoned. Right before our eyes, he was up off the floor and after a quick dusting off back to his seat good as new. You’d think after so many years in this city I would’ve known. He wasn’t handicapped at all. Just a smart dude who found a comfy place to sit!