Suicide, urine, spite, and a greeting card from a homeless man

During the year I’ve spent here in DC, and the six months that I’ve actually been employed, I’ve experienced a great many fascinating things in and around the DC Metro train system, mostly during my commutes.

One day a man committed suicide by jumping onto the tracks in front of a train that happened to be the train running immediately before mine. My usual 45 minute trip home took me 2 ½ hours that day. Boy was I pissed! “Couldn’t this person come up with some other way to knock himself off”, I thought without empathy, “than to ruin the evenings of a million commuters? How inconsiderate!”

Later, after I got home and read the news, I felt ashamed of what ran through my mind in my impatience that afternoon.

One Saturday my girlfriend and I took the train to Wheaton so we could ride the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere and do some shopping at the mall there while we were there. As you come out of the station, you have to walk across an enclosed pedestrian bridge over a busy road and then down a few flights of stairs to the street below. As we entered the stairwell to descend to the street, we encountered a sight that froze us in our tracks. On the landing below was a young man, pants around his thighs, penis in hand, peeing all over the place. He was performing as if it were some dramatic act of defiance or political statement. He spun around and around in place spewing plumes of pressured urine in great arcs and he aimed up and down, covering the stairs, the walls, the windows – he had no shame for either the act or for the public exposure.

“What the…”, I exclaimed, apparently loud enough for him to hear, but somehow couldn’t help myself but keep watching. He looked up and our eyes met. For the briefest moment he looked ashamed and embarrassed. But then he just laughed to himself and went back to his awful business. My girlfriend and I backed out, went across the way, jammed the elevator button a bunch of times and waited. Before the elevator came, the guy came out of the stairwell and had a good laugh over it all with a friend waiting nearby before running off.

My girlfriend and I visited the mall in Wheaton, weren’t impressed, and swore to ourselves that Wheaton was an evil place and that we would never venture there ever again in our lives.

One busy morning, I jumped on a train and, in a rush to find a seat, attempted to slide into a seat behind a young man who was doing the same – a young man who clearly didn’t want to share. He saw me coming, deducted my intentions, and moved into the seat really slow-like, presumably, in hope that I would move on to find another seat. I persisted and, as he slid toward the opposite side, he left his knee sort of poking into the rest of the seat. When I tried to slide in next to him I met his knee and stood there pressed up against it and waited for him to move. He snapped at me, “Why don’t you wait ‘til I get into the seat first!” I ignored him. He moved and I sat. Then there we sat as the train moved down the tracks, with me crowded all the way to the edge of the seat nearly into the aisle because he sat knees spread wide-eagle and held a bag in his lap with his elbows angled out to the sides in order to take up as much space in the seat as possible, clearly intending to make my ride as uncomfortable as possible just to spite me.

Now, I’m not the sort to take shit from people to begin with, and I do not fear confrontation, but I was wearing my employer’s uniform so I do tend to mind my behavior while I am. So, as I sat there with this jerk’s elbows and knees intruding into my personal space, I considered being the bigger man and just finding another place to sit, or stand.

Right about that time, we reached the next stop, the doors snapped open, and I watched a massively obese woman come aboard. She was a little sweaty and looked tired as she walked down the aisle toward us. Her eyes darted from seat to seat and looked disappointed that there was no place for her to sit.

Now, do you remember those old cartoons where a devil would appear on a character’s shoulder to persuade the character into some evil behavior only to then have an angel appear on his other shoulder to convince him otherwise? Well, when I saw this morbidly obese woman walking down the aisle toward me, the angel and the devil appeared on both my shoulders at the same time. Just as she passed my seat, I stood, tapped her on her shoulder and offered her my seat. She thanked me. I hurried to the end of the car, hooked the pole with my elbow and spun to watch what would happen next. I watched with glee as knee and elbow boy was smashed up against the window like a throw pillow. I smiled.

Did I give up my seat for the full-figured woman with fatigue because she needed it, or did I do it to get revenge on that selfish prick? I will always know that my primary intentions weren’t altruistic ones, and when I went home that evening and confessed my sin to my girlfriend, we had a long but entertaining conversation about the complexities of Karma. But that woman who was only hoping for an open seat will never know that her comfort wasn’t the subject of my predicate.

A week or two later the selfish sitter sat down across from me on a bus. When he recognized me he nodded at me and laughed. Apparently he appreciated the humor in what I’d done to him.

There’s a homeless guy who hangs out near one of the train stations I frequent. He’s alright. He’s actually one of the guys wearing the reflective vest and who peddles the local homeless peoples’ newspaper one dollar at a time. Sometimes I give him money. Sometimes I don’t. On the days I don’t have cash in my pocket beyond what I need for the bus, I hang my head down and ignore him. With my headphones on, I pretend to not see him. The dude is just a little bit crazy, and always yells and waves to get me to come over. I pretend to have my music turned up really loud and it’s almost a challenge to not flinch or look at him so I can convince him my music is turned up so darned loud I can’t hear him and don’t notice. One day, he yelled at me so loud that people nearby jumped. I didn’t flinch. I won that day.

Well, on one particular day recently, when I actually had a few bucks in my pocket, I was watching for him as I approached the station and was going to let him win. When he yelled for me, I looked up. When he beckoned me over, I went. When I got up to him and said, “Hey, man, how are you doing? What can I do for you today?”, he handed me a greeting card in an envelope. I was floored! I took the envelope and turned it over in my hands a couple times and looked at him. He just smiled and nodded at me. So, not knowing how to react or what to do, I opened the card and read it as I stood there in front of him. It was a generic “friendship” card but inside had a hand written note that expressed sentiments of thanks and friendship.

I was a little moved and told him so. “That’s really nice, man. I appreciate that. Thanks!”

The card stated that he wasn’t asking for money that day. “Today”, the card said, “is all about you” but I gave him a couple bucks anyway, told him to take care of himself, put the card in my bag and moved on. That card sat in my bag for a few days, untouched, as it took me that much time to wrap my mind around what had transpired before I dug it out a few days later on a bus and read it again.

After these experiences and more, it was that greeting card, given to me from a homeless man, that caused me to slow down and reflect on the very nature of all the rich, and weird, experiences I’ve had on public transportation over the last year. They reminded me of something I truly believe but often forget, which is that people are complicated. And conflicted. And that I should pay more attention to them.

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives – especially when things get hard and when we can get angry – and particularly so for those us news junkies who absorb a lot of mainstream media, cable news and pundit shows, it’s easy for us to create caricatures.

Even though our focus is usually on the people we encounter every day in our professions and what we see in the media that drives our perception of people, it’s the real-life experiences we have, and more importantly, the more subtle aspects of those experiences, that can really keep us human, shape our perceptions, and actually teach us something if we let them and tear our attention away from our comfort zones just long enough to absorb a real human experience during those times when we’re used to zoning out and not paying attention at all.

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