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Subway Lessons: What Being a New Yorker is Really All about

Proof Schubert Reed

December 20th, 2017


For my whole life, I’ve heard the same, redundant critiques of the city I’ve grown up in and call my home: “New Yorkers are so rude — they only care about themselves!” “The people in NYC don’t even acknowledge there’s anyone else there.” Either you’ve probably heard similar things about your NYC, or you get the gist. And the thing is, that can be very true. NYC is a busy place, and often, people are so hurried getting to where they need to go that they don’t stop to notice the others around them. But that’s not all of New York. Personally, the kindest, most caring and attentive people I’ve ever met have been strangers navigating the honeycombed metro system or the gridded, stacked-up streets of the city — just like me. I was recently reminded of this soft side of my city, my home, when I was taking the train to school.


Normally, I lament taking the train to school in the morning. My commute isn’t that long — generally about 45 minutes on the 4/5 from my house to my school on the Upper East Side. But at 6am underground, most people are half-asleep, and the sweaty train cars are filled with grunts of frustration that we all have to be up this early. Especially in the cold winter, bundled up cold-weather clothing makes everyone all-the-more aggravated in hot, stuffed subway cars. On this lucky morning, I had found myself a seat the second I walked into the car — something that rarely occurs — and my train car was fairly empty and quiet. The seats were filled up with passengers, most of them napping, small, foreign faces poking out behind backpacks and scarves and the like. Personally, I was immersed in my phone — probably Snapchatting a friend about the science homework, or watching an episode on Netflix of the Great British Bake Off, or reading an article on net neutrality, or playing 2048; like most others on the train, I was paying little attention to the people around me.


My train pulled up to Bowling Green station, and just as the doors opened to their mechanical melodies, I heard a distinct grunt and smack. I looked up, and a tall man was lying with his back on the ground, halfway in the train car and halfway out, and his eyes shut.


I rose from my seat quickly and apprehensively stepped towards him. He was wearing baggy jeans, tight with a brown leather belt at his waist, and a Patagonia vest over a chalky-yellow button-down flannel. A brown fedora lay next to him on the ground, and a large pool of blood surrounded his shiny bald head in a halo. I gasped and took a step back. He had been leaning against the “Do Not Lean” signs, I guessed, and had fallen backwards just as the train doors opened up, putting him in this now violently disheveled state.

Quickly, a large cluster of people got up and surrounded him — mostly women. Several of them took out their phones to call 911, while others with medical/CPR training approached the man and began to interact directly with him. One woman turned him over on his side and began to apply pressure to his head. A number of gasps erupted from the car as the thin blood underneath his head spread farther and farther across the subway platform. Another young woman crouched down next to him, asking him standard medical questions: how was he feeling that morning? Did he have any allergies? Was he on any medication? (Fortunately, he was responsive.) Yet another person pulled some towels out of her bag and supported his head on the cold concrete subway floor. Another one took down notes from someone on the phone on what to do while we waited. At one point, I even remember some impatient guy trying to pull the passed out man from the car in an attempt to put the train back on its course; about five people lashed out at him, like some sort of group of mama bears, and, worried as I was, I almost laughed out loud as I watched. Suddenly, all of these people, none of whom had ever interacted in their lives, were working together to help a man who was a stranger to all of them.


Soon, the emergency responders arrived and carted the man away. The common consensus seemed to be that he would be okay.


After a few minutes, the conductor announced that the train was back on its course, the doors closed, and we all jolted slightly and then pulled away further into Manhattan. Everyone put their headphones back in, shut their eyes again, pulled out their last minute homework, and retreated back into their own personal worlds. Now, though, there was a different vibe in the train. Now no matter our own past or future personal experiences, no matter who we were texting, what songs we were listening to, or at what stops we would soon be getting off, everyone in the car was interconnected, bound by this small but profound experience that we had all just shared.


So why did this feel so profound to me? I’ve seen people fall on the train before, and I’ve had perfectly decent (and not-so-decent) conversations and interactions with strangers before, as well. And plus, it shouldn’t be too much of a unique experience anyway; it’s just people helping people — humanity, right? Well, I guess to me, especially today, my subway experience struck me as representative of a needed attitude that is becoming less and less common in the world. No matter how grumpy of a morning my fellow passengers were having, almost every individual on the train took the time to assure that this complete stranger would be okay before moving on with their own personal day’s journeys.


And I think that’s something that we all need more of — especially now. In my own school, I see all too often this selfish attitude that favors personal gain over heartfelt honesty and community obligation. My own acquaintances, I feel, sometimes actively turn against me in the interest of furthering their individual progresses (personal or academic), rather than fostering community with their peers. And where does that attitude come from? Well, there’s a whole slew of factors one could list, but every night when I come home and turn on my cable news station of choice, I see it coming from the leading politicians in our country (our very own President included): divisive, selfish personalities running our country and our world, not only dominating the political sphere, but also ingraining spirits of self-exclusivity and selfishly malicious competition in the everyday teen. And that is really scary.


But it’s moments like these, when it’s the worst morning ever — early, cold, dark, and dismal — and people come together to help each other, rather than hurt each other… it’s those moments that remind me of the true heart of my community. And right now, more than ever, we need to not only cherish those moments, but help make sure they keep happening.

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