Since moving to New York City, I have constantly been observing the world around me; watching and learning lessons, both about myself and society as a whole. One constant forum for these lessons has been the MTA. Nearly every day I step onto a subway platform and board the train on my way into Manhattan. Most of the time it’s the D train, which takes me directly from where I live, to where I work in the West Village. Other times it might be the 4 train, which goes along the east side of Manhattan. Often times, the destination I want to go to requires multiple transfers on any of the 2-dozen lines that operate within the city. This has proved prime ground for people watching and the general observing of human diversity and interaction. Every once in a while I see something that might be worth sharing. I’ve decided to start a blog series to document some of the things I see. I call it Today On The Train… This will serve as my first entry in that series.
The first time I saw something noteworthy was just after I moved to the city. I was on the platform, waiting for my train (I can’t remember which line I was riding, or at which stop this occurred). There was a man standing nearby, playing the violin. He was playing very beautifully, so I decided to stop, take off my headphones, and listen for a while. He was asking for donations and had a sign indicating that his wife was in need of a transplant (either kidney or liver, maybe?) and he was trying to raise money to help pay for it. As I was standing there, a man who appeared (at least to me) to be homeless, approached the violinist, leaned in, and handed him a piece of paper. He quietly told him that if his wife needed a donor, then he would volunteer to be tested for a match. I happened to be close enough to hear the interaction, but the man was very discreet. The violinist seemed genuinely touched by the offer. I’m not sure what was on the paper. Maybe it was a phone number, or perhaps it was his blood type. It doesn’t really matter. The men shook hands and the one left, while the other began playing again. I listened for a few more minutes, until my train arrived. I tossed a few bucks in the bin and left, feeling as though it had been me that was on the receiving end of some beautiful gift. I had gotten to witness the best part of humanity: the selfless giving of one person to another, without the reasonable expectation of reciprocation. I don’t know if this man was looking for a donor. I don’t even know if he even had a wife, or if she needed a transplant at all. I don’t know if this other man would be a donor match, or whether he was serious about his offer. I do, however, know that there is a pretty amazing lesson to be learned from this story, no matter what the truth really is. I’m sure that you can divine that on your own.
Today on the train, however, I witnessed a different kind of love (by today I mean very recently). At least I think that’s what I witnessed. My girlfriend, Betsy and I were on the train, heading in to Manhattan. It was our 2-year anniversary and we were headed to the village for dinner. Around the 59th St: Columbus Circle stop, a man entered the car we were in. He was dragging a suitcase behind him. From outside the car you could hear the furious, high-pitched shouts of an angry woman. She was barking angry things, like “I’ll kill you, you bald-headed bastard.” She entered the car a few steps behind him, shouting all the way. It wasn’t immediately apparent that the two of them were traveling together, because she didn’t follow him to where he had seated himself. She went a few seats away, still shouting. Her constant barks were often incoherent, sounding more like guttural cries than anything. “BRING MY BAG OVER HERE, YOU BASTARD!” she finally belted out, before he could walk to her and hand her the suitcase.
By this time the entire train had fallen silent. As it began moving, the only sound was the rhythmic bump and occasional screech of the train moving along the track, and the incoherent shouts of this woman, abusing her husband. He never shouted back. He seemed to take the insults in stride. You could look around the train and see how everyone was uncomfortable, trying to process what was going on. This woman was shouting and gesticulating so wildly that it was impossible not to notice or hear her. Some people tried to ignore the situation, as is common to do in most big cities. It’s not my business. I’ll just turn up the volume on my headphones and pretend nothing’s happening. Some stared in amusement, as if this was their evening’s entertainment. One guy even pulled out his cell phone, in an attempt to capture the spectacle and exploit the situation, presumably so that he could post the video on YouTube or Facebook, where he could laugh about the crazy lady with all of his bros. No one attempted to intervene, not even when she began swinging her cane wildly, beating the man around the shoulder and head. They merely gave her a wide berth (which was interesting, because the train was definitely packed full) and watched as the event unfolded.
Betsy and I were about 20 feet away, nearly on the other end of the train. I have to admit that at first I was one of those passengers who found the scene amusing. I shared an incredulous look with a fellow passenger and even chuckled a little bit. However, as the scene kept unfolding for several minutes, I realized that this wasn’t just some isolated angry outburst. She was ranting nonsensical things. She kept talking about needing her bag (which was next to her) so that she could cook her dinner. He kept saying that the food was too raw and she needed to cook it. Then she would hurl some insult at her husband and then hit him with her cane. It didn’t take me long to understand that this woman had some very real issues, either medical or mental, probably both. I didn’t know the nature or extent of the issues, but the fact that something was very wrong was readily apparent. It was then that I started to see the event in a different light.
My mind began to fill in details that I couldn’t possibly know the veracity of. In my head, these two had been married for years and years. Maybe they even had children together. They loved each other a great deal. Then, something had happened and she changed. Maybe it was sudden, like the flipping of a light switch, or maybe it was a gradual decay, over the course of months, or even years. No matter what the malady, or the germination period, this person, who sat here, shouting madness on the train, was not but a shell of the person that this man had fallen in love with all those years ago. He sat there, searching to remember the woman who he loved so much. Everything about his interaction with her on the train told me that.
When she first beckoned him to bring over her bag, he dutifully complied. As she was shouting at him and hurling obscenities, he did not seem to notice, nor was he rattled. When she swung her cane at his head, he deflected the blows and sternly asked her to stop, not with anger, but with serious affection. His patience was admirable. The entire time, he saw only her. He did not acknowledge other passengers. He did not ask for their help restraining her, or express any embarrassment at her actions. He only even tried to calm her down when she was swinging the cane, as though he knew all too well the futility of trying to get her to stop screaming. He didn’t argue with her, or try to de-escalate the situation. When she hit other passengers with her cane, he did not apologize for her. He only spoke to her, he only looked at her.
Just before we reached our stop, the man turned from her and walked a few feet. She continued to yell behind him. He was facing where Betsy and I were seated and I could clearly see his face. It was full of sadness. He looked haggard and worn thin. He was breathing heavy, as though trying to calm himself, perhaps reminding himself of the woman that had once inhabited his wife’s body. There was pain in his eyes. He stood there for just a few seconds, but his look filled me with an incredible amount of melancholy at the same time that it gave me hope.
Honestly, I think that everyone should be lucky enough to have someone love them as much as this man loved his wife. Love is not always easy, and it certainly isn’t always pretty or romantic, but it is [hopefully] enduring. It’s got to be the hardest thing in the world to watch the person you love slip away. To watch your heart and soul die, either suddenly and tragically, or slowly, right before your very eyes, and then to be alone. There is however, a certain finality in death that can only be appreciated when you have watch the person you love disappear, only to be replaced by some tormented soul that just happens to inhabit the same vessel as your beloved. That is a kind of loneliness that I can’t even imagine. It takes an incredibly strong brand of love to stick around through that; to become caretaker and babysitter, to take abuse and in return give love and patience, without recognition or reciprocation.
When we left the train at the W 4th St stop, the man had returned to his wife, where he would seemingly stay, in sickness and in health, until death do they part. Truthfully, I have no idea how much of this story is actually true. I don’t even know if they were husband and wife in the first place. I only know what I saw, and the rest I wrote, with a creative flourish. Everyone on that train saw the same thing that I did and either ignored it, or watched it play out. If they watched it, then they interpreted it in their own way. This is just how I chose to see it. I chose to see this as a story about the triumphant and tragic power of real, lasting love. I like that story, because even though the ending might not be happy, it’s still hopeful. I hope someday that someone loves me as much as this man loves his wife in my imagination. Maybe someone already does.