Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Our Common Humanity

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I witnessed something this past night that is all too common in the general scheme of things, yet the details of which are blurred in the face of journalistic detachment. I didn’t even recognize it at first because it’s one of those things that you read about in the paper or imbibe statistics of as part of your daily routine: It happens, presumably, but not to me. It happened.

The A train pulled into 168th Street to the sound of people having a loud discussion on the platform. This in itself wasn’t abnormal; only when the train remained in the station for two to three minutes did the folks in the car started gravitating to the doors, all peering in the same direction: A man had fallen onto the tracks, and had been scooped up and hauled out by people on the platform moments before the train could crush him. He had been yanked out with such force that his pants were at his ankles. He lay in a heap on the platform, shivering.

Upon recognizing this situation, most of the people on the train left. Those that remained took up position by the train doors and the platform near the doors, wordlessly watching the proceedings. Half a dozen passengers of the train, along with the conductor, were hovering over the man. He looked homeless. It was hard to tell if he was inebriated or just in shock, whether his circumstance was due to suicidal tendencies or carelessness. It didn’t matter, because the air itself had an aura of sobriety, lending a certain impartial clarity to this midnight proceeding.

A woman in a green peacoat rubbed his shoulder and talked to him. He reached out and briefly took her hand. This, to me, was the most meaningful gesture of the entire event. A man tried unsuccessfully to hoist his pants up. Others circled around him with attentive gazes but without the wherewithal to directly address him, myself included. The conductor marched back and forth with a walkie talkie. The station attendant came, took one look, and left. Most people looked upon with a mixture of curiosity, boredom and impatience. Three passengers eventually picked him up and sat him down on a bench, from which the EMTs, upon their arrival, immediately hauled him up and strapped him to a gurney.

Nobody in my car offered their observation about what they were witnessing, but the signs of disdain were clear from a couple: The sucking of teeth. Pursed lips. This was an inconvenience. But they didn’t give voice to their opinion. Nobody complained about being held up by what happened. The next train down the line might, but we watched in silence as the woman in the green peacoat tended to him. When the EMTs arrived, even she walked off with an indisposed expression on her face. You can’t show but brief flashes of emotion before the New York mean mug returns.

Just like that, he was wheeled away, the conductor motioned for everybody to return to the train, and we were off. The whole thing took maybe eight minutes at most. Just long enough, however, to get a brief, fleeting sense that we may actually, through the impersonal detachment, cool aloofness and civic protocol, harbor some consideration for our fellow man.

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