I enter the subway station and I’m immediately greeted by music. One man sits on the platform, posted on an empty suitcase doubling as a drum, strumming his banjo. Looking across the platform to the other side, I see a young guy playing the violin and quickly realize that what might have first looked like competing artists, is actually a cross-platform collaboration. Brooklyn-bound and Manhattan-bound tracks — two artists literally spanning distances and bridging gaps with their music, and the whole station is entranced.
I’m captivated by the symbolism, but also by their obvious talent. They have a notebook and pen laid out to sign up for an email list. I approach to add my information, but a young man beats me to it. He has a buzzcut except for scraggly hair directly on top of his head. He’s a good-looking guy overall but he looks sort of dazed and nomadic. I see that he’s not signing his name but drawing a picture that spans across all the lines in the notebook; he almost seems to be spellbound. Aware that the train will be here soon and my opportunity will be missed, I ask him to pass the book to me when he is done, but he ignores me, immersed in his drawing, and I am slightly annoyed at his snubbing me.
The artist has reached the end of his song, and notices my interaction (or lack thereof). He apologizes and offers an alternative notebook “since the other was compromised.”
“It hasn’t been compromised,” the young guy has tuned in to the conversation.
The train arrives and I get on, still uplifted by the performance. A girl takes the seat adjacent to me and I quickly realize she is trying to hold back tears. Occasionally they outwit her and sneak down her cheeks. I feel a strong compulsion to ask if she’s okay. I wonder though if asking if she’s okay will be an intrusion? Or is it possible that it would make a difference? Is there healing power in the knowledge that a stranger cares? I try to imagine the situation in reverse to figure out how I would feel. I think I would be touched. Human interaction being the intimidating apex of vulnerability it so often is, I give myself four stops to grow the balls.
But she gets off in two.
So that’s that. I’ll never again be presented with the unique moment in which our paths cross and she is sad and I am concerned on a human level. It’s an opportunity missed. It lets me know in bright, abrasive, determined words like fresh neon paint that there really is no time like the present. And the present is fleeting… temporary… then it slips away and is the past. Just like this exact mundane moment: here now, gone now.
I think there is something immensely powerful in the moments of unlikely proximity — a moment where the haze of a stranger comes into focus and is an actual living, breathing person. A person with worries and quirks and nervous habits and sadness and joy and thoughts. A person with a favorite pair of shoes and a mother at the very least at some point and a heartbeat. A person who can get paper-cuts, who needs water and sleep to survive. A person who has inside jokes with someone and favorite memories and regrets and a preferred genre of music, maybe even allergies.
Someone with hopes and disappointments — someone who’s more than just a face among faces in a crowd, to someone they are the face sought out amidst the blur of others. I will never adequately do justice to the punch packed in a moment where someone else’s humanity feels as vibrantly real and palpable as your own. It’s my favorite lesson to learn over and over again, and it is a lesson best learned as often as possible. It’s remarkably easy to see other people as shells, extras in the performance of your life. What does it even mean to be YOU? How do you define it? The complexities in your existence are present in every other person and it’s a rattling explosive realization that, despite the quickness of its departure, leaves shock waves on impact.
I am jarred from my thoughts as an artist makes his way down the train pushing a trolley with wood strapped to it, paintings splattered across it. He explains that he’s a struggling artist living in Bed Stuy, just another someone trying to make it. I realize as he draws nearer that it’s the same guy who ignored me earlier on the platform. Something thaws. Everything melts together. I know nothing about anyone as we share this space. There is so much to know that will never be known, so much to gain that will never even catch my gaze.
As he walks in one direction, a homeless man walks in the other. Both are asking for any dollars or change anyone might have to spare. The question always comes to what we care to spare our dollars for. I feel the same is true of compassion, of kindness, of selflessness, of honesty. All that requires a bit more effort from us — no matter how small that extra effort is — it is always ultimately dependent upon what we’re willing to spare. The choice is personal, but it is a thought process worth being conscious of, if only to gain insight into what matters to you.
My stop arrives, faster than expected. As ever, I leave the subway humbled, mind exploring all the corners it usually cuts.