Sunday, August 30, 2009

The kindness of strangers

July 25, 2009

There was a woman, perhaps 80 years old, on the G train between Brooklyn and Queens, who looked very confused. She didn’t look like she should be riding the subway alone. Though she was well dressed, I wondered if she had dementia, judging from the way she glanced around nervously each time the train stopped in a station. In fact she was just completely out of her element.

Across from her was a family of tourists from someplace far away. I noticed them because they were arguing, and concluded that they were from someplace like Croatia because their looks and language said “east European country near the Mediterranean.” Wherever they were from they were definitely not having a good time. Their arguing got louder and louder, and after each outburst the father would lean back and stare sullenly across the car. The two sons would continue their debate while the mother stared placidly into space, seemingly uninterested in whatever problem they faced.

At the next stop the old lady approached the father of the seeming Croatian family and asked him a question. He shook his head dismissively – rudely, I thought. Seeing the old lady’s turmoil, a young black woman quickly stood up and began trying to help her; she studied the subway map and told the old woman the train she needed to take, where she should get off to catch it, etc. The young woman then got off the train, pausing in the doorway to look back and say, “OK?” to which the old woman nodded. But it wasn’t entirely true. As soon as the train started moving again the old lady gave me a look that said, “The black woman was the one who tried to help me. That surprised me.” It was one of those looks that tell you that race is a subtext whether you know it or not. I say that not because the old lady was a racist, but because she was able to convey to me, with a subtle white-to-white look, her surprise that the one person on the car who had come to her aid was black. I don’t know how she did it, but it was clear, and I was glad this was something she would carry back with her to wherever she was from.

After that another young woman sat down next to the old lady and, while the “Croatian” family began loudly arguing again, the old lady tried to communicate with the new young woman, who studied the subway map, pointed some places out to her, and, when her own stop came, turned to me and said, “She needs to take the 7 train.” In that way she passed the responsibility for the old lady to me.

Seeing this, the elder son of the Croatian family turned to me and said, in halting English, “Can you tell us how get to Rockefeller Center?” Wow, I thought. You people are seriously lost. Not only miles from Rockefeller Center, but on the wrong train, going the wrong way, and getting more lost with each passing stop. I told him they needed to get back to Manhattan, at which point another guy overheard us and said he was going to the train they needed, and they could follow him. The older son thanked me. The father glowered. The mother ignored everything. The old lady watched to make sure I remembered that I was now in charge of her.

Because I was getting off at the same stop as the old lady, I motioned for her to follow. I don’t think she knew how to say anything in English other than the name of the place in Queens she needed to be and “thank you.” When we got off the train, it was actually pretty complicated getting to the 7 train because they were working on the lines – you had to go up to the street, walk a couple of blocks, cross a busy intersection, go another block, and climb some stairs. And once we got there, she couldn’t find her metro card. I had an unlimited monthly card, so I swiped her through. She was confused when I didn’t follow, but I wasn’t going on the 7 train, and once she realized I’d brought her there anyway, she said thank you four or five times, then said, “Anna,” and pointed to herself. I said, “Alan,” and pointed to myself. She blew me kisses until she was out of sight.

This got me wondering: Why do people think New Yorkers are unfriendly? Sure, they don’t exactly nod at everyone they pass on the street, but how could they, when they pass hundreds of thousands of people a day? Here was a case in point to refute the myth: You could plop down a very old lady with almost no language skills in an unfamiliar subway system and total strangers would take care of her.

I also found it reassuring that one young man was managing to find the balance between an oblivious mother and an angry father, and do what he needed to do to find his way.

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