It’s a situation common enough to imagine.
It’s a Tuesday around 10 p.m. You’re on the M train traveling home from Delancey.
It’s a peaceful ride and after the Lorimer stop, there is barely anybody else on the train. Just a person or two on the other side of the car and a guy who’s been sitting mirror-like to you, right across the car. It’s not creepy, it’s just how the seating arrangements worked out after the majority of straphangers left the train.
You’re listening to an old Spotify playlist on low volume. You’ve heard it so many times it doesn’t excite you anymore, but still it’s a pleasant and reassuring companion on this boring ride home. Your eyes bounce from ad to ad: sleep on this cutesy mattress; order food through this app or you’re not a New Yorker; menstruate into these special panties to change the world. Oh, there’s a rogue ad printed on a sheet of office paper slid underneath the billboard’s protective plastic. It’s some astrologer hustling for business.
You’re mostly trying not to make an eye contact with the guy right in front of you. After nearly 10 years in New York you know the unwritten rules of sharing the city with 8 million others. You allow them privacy by not staring at them, by ignoring their little bubble, and in turn they ignore your little bubble, and as a result we all live here, more or less happy, side by side. We can share public transportation, grocery stores, busy sidewalks, and parks without too much harm to our energetic integrity. How else would we be able to transfer at Union Square from the L to the uptown R in a mass of a couple hundred people?
But occasionally you can’t help but glance at the guy. I mean, it’s kind of hard not to look in front of you. Maybe one of you could slide a couple of seats to the side, which would make this ride easier for the both of you, but it would be a little too conspicuous at this point. After all, it is one of the unwritten rules to pretend you’re not doing anything, even if you are constantly doing a lot to avoid others.
Just as you glance at him, his phone beeps. The guy is in this mid- to late twenties, he is a little chubby, and maybe he has some sparse facial hair. He’s wearing a jean jacket, even though it’s a cold night. He looks like he lives off of Myrtle Broadway. Maybe he has a band that plays at Silent Barn on Tuesday nights. Maybe he’s a comedian whose main game is to make jokes about his awkward dating experiences.
He fishes the phone out of a pocket of his jean jacket. It’s a Samsung. You can’t help but notice because the texts float in yellow rectangles on the black background. He reads the text.
A moment passes. He takes a deep inhale, and on the exhale he makes a loud sob. Next, his face crumbles, and another sob from the depths of his insides comes out.
You are taken aback by this onslaught of raw emotion. The key to a peaceful subway ride is a blank emotional landscape of straphangers. On one level or another everybody knows it.
The guy starts to weep, and you feel a knot growing in your throat. You swallow, but your throat is too dry. You’re still wearing the headphones even though you can’t hear the music any longer.
He cries, terribly. You feel his sadness on a visceral level, and so you press your back against the seat stronger. You did cry on a subway a couple of times yourself, and nobody said or did anything, and it was okay. It was just as you wanted it. But the way this guy cries is different. It’s not a silent cry for relief, or a couple of sobs combined with wet cheeks that are easy to hide. He cries like mankind was meant to cry; he cries loudly, messily, and terribly.
Your mind is racing. What could have been in that text? Did his girl or boy just dump him? No, you know that’s not it. This is a lot worse than a break up text.
What are you going to do? Should you approach him? But what are you going to say? How are you even going to instigate the conversation? The only thing that comes to your mind is, “Excuse me. Are you okay?” But isn’t that like the most moronic way ever to approach someone who clearly is not okay? So what else could say? “Excuse me. Can I offer you my support?” But that just sounds so dumb and pretentious and new age-y. And what if you make yourself vulnerable to him, but he rejects you. What if he says, “No, you can’t offer me your support.” He has every right to do so. How would a rejection make you feel? Stupid? Humiliated? Kinda sad? Kinda angry? All of the above?
Maybe he just wants to be left alone and cry until he can’t anymore or until the train reaches his stop. It occurs to you that if he really lives off of Myrtle Broadway that’s less than four minutes away, and you can probably handle that.
So you just sit there. You don’t stop the music because that would be way awkward at this point.
The guy still cries, and every time he sobs, he seems to be finding a new layer to his suffering. You’re right there with him, even though you’re not really. You don’t remember seeing anyone cry in front of you like that for the longest time, and you don’t want to search your memory to see what it was.
The train finally arrives at Myrtle Broadway. The guy steps out of the train, still crying. In equal measures you feel relieved and like a jerk. The M train idles like it sometimes does at Myrtle Broadway. You think that maybe that’s your cue. You can run after the guy and offer him your solace after all. Maybe you could take him to Happy Fun Hideaway, and buy him a beer, and let him cry on your shoulder. It wouldn’t even matter if he made your shirt all wet and soggy. But obviously you won’t do that.
The door slides close, and with its characteristic growl the train moves closer to your station. God, you feel like an ass. For some reason all you can think of is that just before you die and your life flashes in front of you eyes, this will be a moment you’ll remember. The moment when you didn’t offer help, the moment you chose not to see the crying person on the train. You didn’t even take your headphones off.
God, you loathe yourself, but would you do anything differently if it happened again? Or would you just write an essay like I am right now, hoping that the someone who cried on the subway is okay and that they won’t think of you as of another droplet in the sea of terrible people who live in this city, who step over a dying homeless person, who make an annoyed sigh, not realizing that a person who slowly shuffles on the sidewalks in front of them is in fact blind.
You also know it’s way too convenient to blame it on the city when in reality it was just you, making that decision in that moment. You, a good person, who abides by the rules, who never throws trash on the train tracks, who once called 311 when a tree branch got caught in the telephone wires on your street, so that nobody would get hurt. And maybe next time you’ll make that decision and take your headphones off.
Cover image: Axel Taferner under Creative Commons License.