Friday Prose

Small Comforts

There is something comforting about seeing a homeless person get on the Metro North. Nothing comfortable about being in the same carriage as one and the feeling of helplessness you both possess, obviously, but there is a comfort that derives from the fact that you know you’re still in an upper class of a train. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you get on the C train going downtown and you’re going all the way to Spring street and lo and behold, at 96th street a homeless man gets on and starts begging for change. He’s gonna move between carriages but he’s gonna keep coming back to you. You’ve got twenty odd stops to go and he’s gonna keep asking you for spare change that you don’t have today. What, are you gonna give him your bank card? The $20 in your back pocket that already belongs to the barman in Battery park for two beers and a tip? Maybe when you first got to New York and the packed subways scared you and the towering skyscrapers dwarfed you. No, you’ve gotta remain stony faced, cold and aloof when you’re a New Yorker. ‘No, sorry, I don’t have anything.’ ‘Sorry, got nothing.’ ‘Look, I don’t have any change on me.’ You can’t help the poor souls who don’t have anything left. Not really.
If you’re lucky he’ll just pass on without a word. Oftentimes he’ll stay and stare for just a bit longer, not actively trying to shame you into parting with your money but that’s what is going on. And it’s nobody’s fault, not really. It’s not his fault that he’s on the same train day after day, literally struggling to stay alive. It’s not your fault that you are in a better off position than this man; not so better off that you would willingly and comfortably part with $20, but better off to the extent that he would see you in your nice clothes and comfortable aura and ask you for money.

Rarely, and this is the thing that people don’t realise about the New York subway system, but rarely if ever will an interaction turn sour on the subway. Still, you are aware that it could turn sour at any point, but it rarely will. The power is in your hands. You can sit and stare straight ahead, ignoring the intrusion into your commute to work, possibly provoking some harsh words. You can turn snippy yourself and tell the man/woman/child to leave you alone. You could get volatile and tell someone to fuck off for simply asking you a question. You could do a whole lot of things and sometimes being polite and simply declining seems like a new phenomenon that people have only just heard of. You have somewhere better to be where you’ll be a better version of yourself.

Of course, none of this matters on the Metro North. Neither you nor your fellow passengers will have to battle with your conscience. Yes, it costs an extra $4 or $7, depending on peak times, but there’s no tension on the train. Even if you do see someone looking for money getting on your luxury commuter carriage, the conductors will be down checking tickets any minute and you’ll have a conscience-free ride home. You will sink into the small comfort of your leather seat and look at all the weary faces that surround you, safe in the knowledge that they all have a home. They all have spare change.

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