empathy and the city

First, click.

This evening I was changing from the M to the G at Court Square. This entails a rush between two separate ends of a train station. In the morning, there is a moving walkway that goes from the G to the E/M, but evenings, we are left to our own devices. We must walk. We must hustle.

On this particular evening, I found myself with a bit more pep in my step, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the mounting headache, or that my day had started so incredibly early that all I wanted to do was get home at a decent hour and maybe go directly to bed. It could have been that I wanted to try to beat a new roommate back to the apartment, a roommate who does not understand how valuable it is for me to be able to relax on the couch alone to watch an episode of Jeopardy over my pathetic single-girl dinner. Whatever it was, it had me weaving quickly in between strangers, trying to anticipate whether or not they might veer right so I could step left.

I came up on a man who was very clearly elderly. He walked a bit slower, he had long white hair and a ball cap on. As I stepped around him to hustle past, I glanced down and noticed that his shoe was untied. A silent siren went off in my head. Tell him! Tell this man his shoe lace is untied! But I didn’t! Because I was in a rush. Because in New York we are constantly in a rush.

And so I moved on past him and I ran down the steps because I thought the train was leaving. It wasn’t. I grabbed a seat and hugged my bag to my chest and I worried about the man and his untied shoe.

But lo and behold, look who’s come onto the subway car to sit right beside me? That same man.

I sat with my eyes ahead, and I tried to will away my headache, and I hoped and hoped that he had stopped to tie his shoe. I didn’t check, I don’t know why. Would it have been odd to point out that his shoe was untied, as we sat together in an unmoving train car? And so we carried on this way, sitting in close proximity, my peripheral vision giving me the perfect angle to see his fingers rubbing together in what I had supposed to be an anxious sort of way. Because in New York we are constantly in a state of anxiety.

As the train lingered on through Queens and into Greenpoint, I had my hopes set on getting off at the same stop as this man. I could check his laces and give him the mental a-okay to go on his way. But at Nassau Avenue, he pushed out of his seat and walked to the door, and my eyes fell to the floor where his shoelace remained untied and his feet shuffled and my heart jumped into my throat hoping no one would step on the rogue lace. I swallowed back my self-hate for the moment as I tried to find him through the closing door. I kept willing him to stop and tie his shoe. Please, please, please. But I’d lost him. Perhaps because he’d knelt down to fix his shoe?

And there he was again, the lag in his reappearance in the train car window just long enough for someone to have retied their shoelace. I felt a little wave of relief, but I felt a lot of sadness. We continued on, further into Williamsburg, and my eyes were stinging with fresh tears. It was something so simple as telling someone their shoe was untied, and yet I didn’t have the time. Right? I didn’t have the time to be kind to a stranger. That’s what it all came down to. And it really broke my heart.

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