This morning in Boston, it was cold. Like bone-chilling, boogers freezing inside your nose, cold. Luckily, the commuter rail was on time and in an effort to avoid the 15 minute walk from South Station to my office, I got off the train at Back Bay to hop onto the Orange Line that, four stops later, would drop me off just across the street from my building.
As I descended the stairs at Back Bay, I noticed a woman whose name I don't know but who I will call "Hannah" for the purposes of this post. I see Hannah most mornings that I ride the Orange Line. She is probably about my age, and she has a physical disability that makes her walk look much different than everyone else's. It's not a subtle difference, but rather, something that you could notice out of the corner of your eye even if you weren't paying attention.
Not to seem nosey, but whenever I see Hannah, I want to know more about her. Has she had her disability all her life? Is she in pain? How often does she think about how her legs work differently than others' do? Will her condition ever improve? If it will only get worse, how fast will it happen? Granted, Hannah may be a mean and bitter woman just like any stranger could be, but I don't get that impression. I get the impression that Hannah could teach us all a thing or two about a thing or two. Either way, I admire Hannah every time I see her.
This morning, the Orange Line was "experiencing severe delays," which meant that the platform was packed with people, only a fraction of whom boarded the already packed trains when they pulled into the station.
I'm not one to push my fellow commuters or the homeless man that sometimes forgets his pants, preferring instead to wait for the next train. But this morning, three trains and 30 minutes later, I figured I'd better get my nudge on if I wanted to get to work any time today. I decided I was going to get on the next train and I so I psyched myself up and positioned myself so that it could actually happen.
That's when I noticed Hannah a few people over from me. Clearly she had been waiting 30 minutes, too, and when I realized that, I wanted to scream at every person who boarded the three trains before us. Had no one noticed Hannah still standing there? Had no one been kind enough to let her on before they boarded?
Many people who ride public transportation would likely argue that when it comes to commuting, people are allowed to be oblivious. We are all distracted by music, text messages, a book, or maybe even a pain we think is cancer. I get that a lot of practical distractions can lead us into obliviousness. But I don't excuse it. (Enter, soapbox.) I believe that we have a responsibility, no matter how early it is or how tired we are, to notice when people could use our help.
When the fourth train finally arrived this morning, I sharpened my elbows, secured my feet, and made sure that Hannah and I got on the train. I felt some relief when we did, until, a few minutes later, my anger revved up again.
Once on the train, I looked to see if the "Priority Handicapped" seat was open for Hannah. It wasn't. A young woman who was clearly not handicapped occupied the seat. She didn't even look up to see if anyone needed it. As cold as I was, my blood started to boil.
Loud enough so that the seated girl could hear, I pointed to the seat and asked Hannah if she wanted to sit down. Matter-of-factly, she said, "No. Thank you. I'm OK." I wasn't convinced, knowing full well that if the seat was open, she would have taken it. But it was clear that Hannah didn't want special treatment so I didn't say anything else. I stood there quietly, fighting back all my impulses to tell the girl sitting in that seat that she should have noticed that someone else needed it. All that ultimately held me back was the reality that I could embarrass Hannah if I said anything more.
I don't claim that I notice everything and the Lord knows I've missed countless chances to help someone who could have used a hand. But still, I was brought up to know that I should, at the very least, look around to see if someone needs help. (Enter, higher soap box.)
I know that there are a million different things that can distract all of us while we commute or work or play or do anything else. I'm not saying we can't listen to our music or text our friends while not driving. I know it's not necessarily our duty to make every other person's life more comfortable. Even from my soapbox, I get all that.
But on the other hand, what if we all actually did look up from our smart phones more often? What if we checked around us before we boarded a train to see if there was someone who struggles to stand up and to walk, someone who may be in less pain if we allowed them to board the train before we do? What if, when seated in the Priority Handicapped chair, we made sure that no one needed it, and if they did, what if we got up and kindly offered it to them so they didn't need to battle their pride to ask? What if we did all these things? Would we miss anything?
I admit, I got angry about these sorts of things long before cancer. In fact, a few years back, I wrote to the MBTA and conversed with the local police over the fact that on cold days, all of the handicapped spots at my station were occupied by drivers who sat in the car with their passenger until the train came. In my letter and my phone calls, I argued that a handicapped person could easily miss the train because they'd arrive at the station with nowhere to park, all so people who could stand on their own two feet could avoid standing out in the cold.
After my complaint, the police came around for a few days and drivers moved from the spots. But it didn't last, and these past few weeks as I've walked by those standing cars without handicapped plates, I've secretly wanted to key them (harsh, I know, but don't worry...I have a keyless car). So yes, my anger over thoughtlessness and selfishness isn't a new thing. But my confidence to say out loud that it's something we should all think more about, well, that's new, I guess.
Cancer also taught me that at one time or another (and likely when we least expect it), we'll all need the handicapped seat or a person to let us onto the train because we can't stand up anymore. Maybe we don't have a duty to help each other out in these ways. But I sure wish we all felt a responsibility to. Because that world would be a really beautiful place. Even on the Orange Line.