If you’re familiar with the MBTA at all, you know that riding the subway is not typically an inspiring experience, and I didn’t ask it to be; I was just riding around because I was feeling too weird and anxious to sit still in my apartment any longer.
[Photo credit: Eric Kilby]
Truth be told, I was supposed to be writing this article, but every time I looked at my computer screen, I felt the anxious vacuum start to form behind my eyebrows and in my gut, and I had to put it away. This had been going on for two days. I hadn’t written a thing, creative or otherwise – and yes, my job is to write, and no, I hadn’t written anything for the paper, either.
I used to write like breathing. Sometimes I wonder if I still can. Sometimes I think I’ve lost the spark.
Sitting next to a homeless man on the train changed all that.
To be fair, I don’t know for sure that the man was homeless. When I boarded, he was sitting in that recumbent way that people who don’t own a bed tend to have when they ride the T late at night. It’s a particular posture of rest, which says, “I’ve been riding this train since Alewife and I won’t be going anywhere until we reach the end of the line. Maybe longer, if nobody kicks me out.” He wasn’t asleep, but he seemed to be headed that way.
He was swaddled in layers to the point that I actually wasn’t sure whether he was a man, since I couldn’t make out the shape of his body or the contours of his face. I’m too progressive to declare he was a man based on his choice of footwear (heavy boots, and large), or that she was a woman based on her medium-length white hair and lack of beard. In the end, I needed a pronoun and went with “he” based on his broad, flat fingernails, which is as arbitrary as anything else, I suppose, and I’m sorry.
So I didn’t know if he was a “he,” and I didn’t know if he was homeless. But I knew one thing without a doubt: he smelled. It wasn’t a “hasn’t showered in weeks” kind of smell. It was pee. And it was absolutely overwhelming.
I realized it just an instant too late as I was already lowering myself into the next seat. All right, the next-next seat – in Boston, we sit every-other-seat on trains because we hate everyone, so there was, in fact, some space between me and the presumably-homeless presumably-man. But it was still too close.
As I sat there, breathing as little as possible, a barrage of emotions hit me one after the other – not unlike train cars, I imagine, if you’ve ever been run over by a train.
First, I felt torn: I really wanted to get up and sit somewhere else. But I thought about how I would feel if, every time someone sat down near me, they immediately got up and left. Repulsive. Worthless. Not human. I couldn’t do that to this person. So I stayed.
Then, sadness: how sad that we live in a world where people can’t afford to be clean – to shower, to use a proper toilet, to wash or replace their clothing. What is this world, where a subway car looks like a nice place to catch a few Zs? Sure, it’s air-conditioned in summer, heated in winter, and dry in the rain, but those seats are hard. And in less than an hour, you’ll be at the end of the line and your nap will be over.
Then the guilt hit. Who was I to complain? If I thought it was bad sitting next to this person, how must it feel to be in his shoes? Instead, I should have been doing something to help. But what? It’s not like I’d brought any spare clothing with me. I’ve been known to give food to people on the street when I’m walking home with leftovers, or even to treat them at the nearest McDonald’s – but since I, like he, was just riding the train, I didn’t have leftovers, either. I didn’t even have cash.
So, simply, I sat. I told the judge in my head to shut up: you don’t know what his story is or how he got here. Maybe he has no family. Maybe he’s mentally ill. Maybe he’s a veteran. Or maybe, against all logic that I could understand, maybe he chose to live like this; crazier things have happened.
I had no money, but I gave him all I could give, what little respect I could show, and stayed beside him. And then he gave me something so much more.
He took out a notebook. One of those spiral-bound things you can get at Walgreens for 99 cents. And he took out a pen. It had purple ink. I know this because he started writing furiously – chicken scratch, cross-outs, line upon line. He filled a whole page, his hand never resting. I couldn’t read a word of it and found myself suddenly fighting a very different urge: to lean closer, not further away, to see what a person such as this had to say.
Would he write of his own life, his daily trials and victories? Observations of the people and things around him? Philosophical thoughts? The train, as I was busily proving myself, is a good place for philosophical introspection.
Or, perhaps, he was writing fiction. Maybe he was building another world where things were better, where people like him could overcome a place like this. Or maybe it wasn’t escapism. Maybe he just loved the telling. Maybe he gave up everything and everyone to do this, to chase this incredible passion and to have this incredible freedom.
Of course, I also had to consider the possibility that it was the ramblings of a madman.
Whatever he’d written, there was something burning inside of this character in the next-next seat that I hadn’t seen from afar, when I’d taken him for just a sleeping homeless guy. And I hadn’t seen it close-up, either, too busy pitying him to really look at who was underneath the bulky layers and the stink.
Not every light burns at the same time or in the same way. Sometimes all that’s left is an ember. And sometimes that ember gutters and fades under the harsh blue glare of a computer screen. But it is still there, and if you feed it, it will grow. What was this man feeding to his ember, when he had so little? And what will I feed to mine – I, who have so much?
This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.