Sometimes people surprise me

Making good use of my unlimited subway pass, I hit the Midtown branch of my gym yesterday. The 11:00 a.m. weekday crowd is always light for some reason; maybe people have somewhere else to be. After my workout, I pushed through the wind and snow back to the train. The fruit guy—who was braving the elements earlier—had packed it in. (Did I mention before that he can go home whenever he wants?) In the dank tunnel, listening to dripping water, I waited for the subway… and waited.

The E train back to Jackson Heights was pretty crowded from the delay. A squat man with sunglasses and a hood pulled tightly over his head lumbered on at the next stop and stood next to me. He didn’t hold on, but kept his balance when we moved again. Not until he started pointing out the window and talking to himself did I pay closer attention.

Us New Yorkers are always on the lookout for homeless and crazy people on the subway. While we may avoid eye contact and look past people, we’re keenly aware of our surroundings. This brusqueness is purely defensive; we don’t know who you are or what you might do.

After another minute, the man pulled off his hood and glasses and grabbed the pole. He was of Middle Eastern descent and about my age—fairly common on a Queens-bound train. He was also mentally retarded, maybe not obviously so, but obvious enough to me.

Growing up with a Down Syndrome sister, I can spot people like her pretty easily. There’s a young women who wears headphones and a tight ponytail and walks around Jackson Heights with her elderly father (maybe grandfather). They sometimes hold hands, which is rather touching. Her (and his) round face, dull, almond-shaped eyes and heavy gait all suggest the condition. But my recognition is so second nature that I may have never even parsed out the features like that.

Like my sister, the man on the train had a certain gregarious nature about him. He seemed eager to make friends with his fellow passengers. The first person he approached—a tired-looking, middle-age woman—wasn’t quite so eager. She resisted his attempts at conversation. But when he lost interest and turned around again, she perked up, pointing and laughing with the young male stranger next to her.

This really pissed me off, so much so that I tried to set them on fire with my glare while scripting my remarks. Something to the effect of, “laughing at retarded people is real f***king mature, lady!” seemed appropriate. A good follow-up line eluded me. The man then tried to talk to someone on the bench opposite the woman. This man didn’t look up, engaged as he was in his novel, Booty Call *69—a stirring account of a long-distance relationship which almost won the National Book Award for Fiction.

Still seething and slightly embarrassed for the retarded guy, I tried to concentrate on my podcast. Ignorance is everywhere. Starting a fight on the subway, even in this guy’s defense, wouldn’t solve anything. It wouldn’t even boost my own feeling of self-worth, which, in retrospect, was probably the real impetus.

The train trudged along under the East River and emerged in Queens at the 23rd and Ely stop. A pair of matching teenagers—North Face jackets, baggy jeans and untied sneakers—swept in, laughing loudly about something or other. Shouldn’t these kids have been in school? I clenched up, knowing the attraction this presented for the retarded guy. My sister engages many strangers she finds interesting, often in conversations not fit for people she knows. What mortified me as a kid still sneaks up on me sometimes as an adult. I was embarrassed in anticipation, but prepared to be the surrogate big brother.

The doors closed and the train moved. The retarded man turned and offered his hand in friendship. One young man shook it, a little unsure of the situation, and then the other did too. The retarded man made some unintelligible remarks, as if to say, “hey, we’re boys, right?” The teenagers responded in the same spirit. He turned around again, and they went back to their conversation. That was that.

While clearly a little uncomfortable, they were polite and accepting, which is all that could be asked of them. I’ve lived my whole life around people like my sister, and I still get caught off-guard sometimes. The woman, for her part, showed herself to be an ignorant fool. Maturity doesn’t have to come from age or experience. It comes from an open mind. As for the guy reading the book, well, he was a lover of good fiction maybe.

People surprise me sometimes, usually in negative ways, but occasionally in positive ways too. I expected the young men to react like the middle-age woman, or worse. But they were mature and respectful, forcing me to reexamine my own opinions and biases. Unemployment often feels like a whole lot of standing still. But yesterday I took a step forward, thanks to a couple of young men on the train.

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One Comment

  1. Norm wrote:

    I friend of mine sent me her story via Facebook, and I’d like to share it here…

    When I was pregnant with my first born 14 years ago, I lived in Baltimore. There are certain areas there where I was told not to go after dark and definitely don’t go alone. I was caught at a mall in one of these areas once, going Christmas shopping. Now usually I don’t scare easily, but being eight months along, I guess I began to be concerned about safety for my baby.

    I went during the afternoon, but didn’t end up finishing up until after dark. I wasn’t aware of my surroundings until I was about ready to leave, then suddenly I noticed I was the only visible female around and it seemed that most of the people were teenagers and young men. Anyway, after resting for a moment on one of the benches, I got up and started for the exit to the parking lot.

    I was ultra sensitive to everyone around, so much so that I heard hurried footsteps coming from behind me. I turned and saw two boys running towards me, one looked to be about 12, the other a couple years older. I almost panicked but kept pace to get to the door. The boys rushed past me, headed straight for the door that I was about to go out of, but the door remained opened for some strange reason… Those two boys were rushing to get ahead of the pregnant woman they saw, to hold open the door.

    I sat in the parking lot and cried in my car for at least half an hour; I had so many emotions running through me, embarrassment, adoration, anger, shock, pride and regret. I still can’t tell people (about this) without getting choked up a little.

    Anyway, I learned and it has stuck with me, even up to now. People will surprise you, if you allow them to.

    Monday, March 2, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

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