I tell myself (and others who will listen) that I’m not nosey, just curious. My “curiousity” is at its peak when I am riding on the subway. Like everyone who lives and travels in New York City, I had been properly advised to mind my own business. No direct eye contact. No smiling, not even to myself. And for a time, I behaved as I was told.
I left my beloved NYC for a while and moved to a place that practiced a odd form of behavior called, “southern hospitality” in which people, including complete strangers, smile at one another and exhange somewhat insincere pleasantries. I don’t do phony too well but I made my best effort to adapt. I said, “Hello” but smiled only when I felt like it. And I didn’t ask, “How are you today?” unless I really cared.
Approximately four years ago, I returned to my beloved NYC. And I started riding the subways again. For me, even relatively newly aquired habits die hard, so I found I it difficult not to look at people, although I tried not to stare. And occasionally, I smiled. And to my surprise, people smiled back. I think that 9/11 has softened a lot of hearts.
In addition to smiling, I also listen. I don’t own an I-pod and I find reading a bit boring after a while, so I listen. Listen to the sounds of the train barreling along the tracks. Listen mothers talking (sometimes far too harshly) to their precocious children. Listen to construction workers going on about “the game.” Listen to homeless men begging for money as they move through the subway car.
Last night, I was listening. Listening to a young brown-skinned man and his older darker-skinned friend. The young man had spent the past two days in Central Booking. The charge? He didn’t say. His friend was trying to school him on what he believes are the ways of the world. In this older man’s world, the black man is always treated unjustly and Martin Luther King. Jr. was a only a dreamer.
As I listened, I became angrier and angrier. Why is he poisoning this young man’s mind with hopelessness? “Reality” is relative.
The final straw came when the young man vowed never to return to Central Booking again and would use the strength that had gotten him this far in life to make the statement a reality and his friend all but dismissed the idea as youthful foolishness. The older man knew many people, including himself, who were incarcerated and/or “picked up” several times for having “done nothing.” So how could this young man expect to escape such a fate?
I had had enough. I decided to say something to the young man just before leaving the subway car. What that something was going to be, I didn’t know.
The train stopped at my station and as I was departing, I touched the young man’s arm and said, “Best of luck, brother.” He said, “Thank you.” I could hear the angry taunts of his friend as the doors closed but I wasn’t affected. I did what I needed to do — plant a seed of hope.