This is a gripe about a trip with a few inconveniences. The Amtrak train that I was on was heading its peaceable way to Boston from Philly when its engine conked. As a woman with a near psychotic schedule, I was not overly perturbed to be given an extra hour on what I assumed would be a marginally delayed train. I smiled – and typed – through the walking-speed crawl toward New Rochelle, and unhurriedly gathered my belongings to transfer to the train headed to New Haven in New Rochelle. On that train I met a man, a father of two named Michael (one of my two favorite names, the other being Andrew), here visiting from Melbourne, Australia, who was a good conversationalist (we touched on the American health care system, public education, writing, Neil Postman and Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism), and easy on the eye. What was there to complain about? But I had to get off at New Haven, and there my sang froid began to rip and tare.
First, with a hundred milling passengers who were, by now, delayed by about an hour and a half, came an announcement that we were not to board the next train headed to Boston unless we had tickets for that particular train. Did I listen? Hell no. I had a reading to get to in Boston and there was no way I was going to miss it. So, board I did, along with a few other brave souls. Then I had to stand from New Haven to Boston and, unlike in Sri Lanka, there were no open doors to make that less claustrophobic and even thrilling. It was just a business of standing on a train with other disgruntled people, most ill-equipped by girth or height or age or type of baggage to squat or lean with any degree of comfort. I tried my best to dispatch a headache by alternating between trying to finish the book I had been cogitating over, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, listening to Pitbull and Lou Bega, and texting my waiting friends in Boston. And third, I was forced to consider – with increasing outrage – all the able-bodied types who continued to warm their seats while old ladies and old gentlemen were struggling to stay upright while holding onto their luggage and whatever solid supports they could find.
People, it isn’t chivalrous to get up and give your seat to the elderly, pregnant women or children, it is basic human decency. It should be a hard-wiring in your brain that boots your arse out of your seat without you even having to think about it. It happens a thousand times a day in a thousand other situations around the world. It happened all my life when I lived in Sri Lanka. I was sometimes the benefactor, sometimes the one who reaped the comfort of another’s grace. I never once, in all my years in Sri Lanka, ever saw a pregnant woman, an older person of either gender, or a little child stand on a bus and the buses were invariably crowded.
So what is it with us here in America? What makes it possible for the limber of body and the, hopefully, blessed of mind, make eye contact with other human beings who have a need we can meet, register that fact, and then turn away or back to whatever it is that preoccupies us? To our laptops and iPods and books on tape and books on paper and newspapers and whatever else? I have to believe that it is our collective agreement to disengage from each other in this every-man/woman/child-for him/herself culture we have constructed around us. We don’t simply not care, we don’t see. We don’t connect unless there is something “in it” for us.
Somewhere toward Boston a seat opened up as one of the afore-mentioned individuals reached their destination. The seat was closest to me, and although I assumed it would be okay therefore for me to sit in it – by now there were only three of us standing and all of us were about the same age – I turned to the woman next to me and inquired, politely, “do you want to sit there?” This is what you would do back home in Sri Lanka. You would ask, and the other person would graciously say, “oh no, you take it.” Whichever one of you got the seat, the other person would at least feel acknowledged as having had a similar need. But I was not home in Sri Lanka. I was home in America. The woman said, “Oh, yes, I was going to sit there.” I went back to my book, leaving her to push past me to get to the seat which she occupied for all of about ten minutes before she had to get off. Getting up she told me “you can have my seat now.” I said nothing. I continued to stand the rest of the way. I wanted nothing to do with such people, nor with the places in which their sorry bottoms had rested. It was idiotic, I know, it proved nothing and only increased the fatigue that had by now enveloped me on this journey that had already lasted ten hours, several of those on my feet, but it made me feel holier-than-thou. Which was about all there was left to feel until I could reach Boston where a flurry of friends – most of them descendants of immigrants but an equal number born here – could restore my faith in basic human goodness.