This is something I witnessed a while back, and for the longest time I’ve internalized it and ran it over and over in my head, trying to make sense of it. Eventually I decided to put it into words.
It happened at the end of a work day, as I was heading home, waiting for the number 2 train from Brooklyn to mid-town. I entered the car and I immediately knew something was off. There was a big gap in one side of the car as though everyone had run away from something scary. I judged the situation in my head right away: ‘A hobo or some other smelly person.’
I looked and sure enough there was a man there, sitting alone in that space. He was in his late 50s, and had white hair, long to his shoulders. His clothes looked old, but not too bad. What was different about him was that he was sitting on the floor in front of the seats. It looked as if he had slid off the chairs and now he was unable to get back up.
I shrugged slightly and I sat on the opposite side, in the next group of seats. Everyone was staring at this man, waiting for the situation to become funny. For a split moment, we all move our eyes away from our books and devices to witness something live. It was us and him in some kind of weird social stare contest.
But then I noticed that the man was in fact struggling really hard. I can’t tell if he was in some way intoxicated or otherwise impaired but his efforts to get back on the chair were futile. He kept pushing his elbows back up on the chairs, pushing with his feet, only to slide back down every time. He was panting as he fought, sweat drenching his face, and his eyes opening wider and wider with each try as though he had come to the understanding that he might never succeed. Like a small-scale Sisyphus, he began to understand that he won’t make it--that he can’t make it,--and a mask of fear covered his face as he probably came to the realization that he’ll have no choice but sit on the floor for the entire ride. Or worse—forever.
A woman dared to say: “Are you all right?”
He barely reacted, still trying to get up, but said softly: “I cannot get up on my seat.”
She said nothing else.
And he fell again. And again. People whispered, heads shook. “Shame,” I heard. One stop passed. Then another. People got on and off.
Eventually a young man came from the back of the car and squatted next to the old man. “Sir, are you okay?” he said. “Do you need any help?”
At that moment I saw the old man give up. His arms turn to water, he deflated, collapsed. He fell on the floor, his hands like rags next to his body. He took a few slow breaths, lifted his head up, smiled, and said: “Thank you, son, but no—it’s too late for me.”
And there it was. This man’s life summed up by one sentence: it’s too late for me.
But the young man didn’t have it. “Sir,” he said, “whether you want it or not I will lift you up. I will not let you sit on the floor like this.”
And he put his arms under the old man’s armpits and yanked him off the floor. The old man began to push with his legs, a feeble attempt to help, while the rest of us looked at the scene, and sort of nodded in acceptance like some kind of divine justice had been made. Like that young man was our representative, and all we needed was someone to do the dirty deed for us. Our conscience was clear, right? Because we agreed with the young man’s actions. Yet none of us lent a hand.
The young man pulled one last time and the old man was back on his seat. “Thank you,” said the old man and put his head on his knees. He then coiled his arms around his head as though to bury himself away from our peering eyes, as though to disappear, acknowledging his new status of disposable being, fit to be left on the floor and stared at like some kind of obsolete circus act.
And we the people continued to look at him for a while, but soon our interest withered. Our eyes gravitated back to our books and IPhones and IPads, but we weren’t reading. We stared blankly forward, imagining that we too would help, if we were only given a better opportunity. I am wondering if we were all thinking the same thing, while peeking from the corner of our eyes to the old man whose knees and arms had turned into the sand in which he sank his face.
Is it too late for all of us to be human?
Today, it wasn’t for one single young man, but that man wasn’t me.
Maybe there is hope.