Lessons from the Subway

Last week, I turned 59. 

This week, I got on a moderately crowded Orange Line car, and a young man near the door promptly offered me his seat.   A few hours later, when I boarded a slightly-less-crowded Orange Line car for the return trip, another young man did exactly the same thing. 

Astonishing.   In a lifetime of riding public transit, I can recall only one other instance of being offered a seat, when I was struggling with several heavy grocery bags.   More memorable are the times when I really needed a seat, but none was offered. 

The worst of these instances was in the spring of 2018, as I was recovering from rotator cuff surgery.  My arm was in an enormous sling and I was not yet cleared to drive; yet I had places to go and things to do.   So I tried the Green Line.   Alas, the trolley was crowded, so I was stuck in an aisle, hanging onto the back of a seat to steady myself as we lurched through the streets of Brookline.  My shoulder was killing me; I was terrified of being jostled and re-injured.  I was wearing the biggest sling in the world AND grimacing; surely one of the college-age humans in the adjoining seats would offer me a perch? But no:  their heads were buried in their phones.  No eye contact.   No mercy. 

I recall furiously texting my children, asking for reassurance that if they were to encounter a grimacing middle-aged woman on the T with her arm in the world’s largest sling, I raised them well enough that they would offer her a seat.   I believe they texted back the word “UBER.”

A woman I know, a far more prolific and successful blogger than I, told me that she saw her blog as an opportunity to find meaning in the small daily events of her life.   From this little succession of events, then, I draw the following lesson:  how hard it is for us to really see the suffering of others.   It is relatively easy to play the gallant with a slightly wrinkly woman who is graying a bit at the temples but otherwise in apparent good health.  But it is much harder to acknowledge and respond to someone who is in obvious pain.

Also this:  I look much older now than I did two weeks ago, when I was only 58.

And how about this? Technology has been killing common courtesy for the past decade and a half, as we’ve buried ourselves in our phones, oblivious to the people standing right next to us.  But that trend reversed abruptly in January, 2024.

And finally, this:  Orange Line riders are simply more polite.  The Green Line, on the other hand, is an absolute jungle.







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