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Subway Lifer: The Kindness of Strangers


PUBLISHED: February 10, 2014

Photo by Bill Hayes

Editor’s note: The following post is the final in a series on living in New York. Read the first post, Subway Lifer.


The Moving Man

When the lease on my first New York apartment came up for renewal, the landlord raised my rent. I could no longer justify what I would be paying for a small, sixth-floor walk-up, so I decided to move. I found a relatively inexpensive place on the east side, a few blocks from the First Avenue L station. I took it on impulse, my default mode, I see now. Within days, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. The apartment was a cave. The building was a frat house. Pigeons lined every sill, cooing and shitting and grooming themselves, despite my shooing, as if to let me know they had been here long, long before me. What hit me just as hard was how much I hated my new subway lines. I came to dread taking the 4/5 from Union Square every morning; it was cacophonous and crowded and, more than most subways, irredeemably grimy.

Worse, really, was the L, which I’d take home from the west side. Not the train itself, which was fast and frequent, but what it represented. In that direction, the L is packed with people on their way to Brooklyn, whether going home or out partying. They always seemed remarkably hip and gay (in the original sense of the word) and young, whereas I felt like an old man being taken away from where he really wanted to be.

I feel guilty now that I projected my unhappiness onto the subways. The L and the 4/5? They did right by me, getting me home and to work on time and safely, and each brought its share of sights and discoveries. While waiting for a 4/5 one mercilessly humid summer afternoon last summer, I found unexpected refuge from the suffocating heat under a gigantic fan installed in the ceiling at Union Square. I’d never noticed it before. But there I stood, gratefully, as if in the final leg of a car wash, my sweat-drenched clothes getting a jet drying.

It was near that same spot on an equally hot day that I saw a young woman faint just steps from the platform’s edge. She wilted in slow motion, but at the exact opposite speed two people came to her aid. By the time I reached the scene, she was in very capable hands, literally. There was a man who turned out to be a doctor cradling her head, and at her side, holding her hand, was a preternaturally calm woman who looked like a yoga instructor. When the fainted girl came to, she looked terrified and confused, but the calm woman calmed her and the doctor doctored her, and in due time the two walked her outside for some fresh air.

Crosstown moments come to mind, too: Were it not for the L, I would never have met Pablo, the young Dominican who manned the Sof-Tee ice-cream truck parked outside the station at First and 14th last summer. Stopping for a cone and a how’s-it-going always made heading home easier. At the other end of the line was Joseph, a disabled artist whose drawings I collected and whose dedication inspired me. If Joseph, wheelchair-bound, could get himself from his SRO hotel off Times Square to the Eighth Avenue station every day to make and sell his work—even in the dead of winter—what excuse did I have? I had pretty much given up writing at that point in my life, discouraged by one too many rejections. Moreover, by January, I had all but given up hope that I could be happy here again. A love affair had soured, and I couldn’t face another year in that cave alone. But what to do? Where to next? To be a New Yorker is one thing, but to decide consciously to stay, to live out one’s life here is another. I wasn’t sure I had what it takes. By which I did not simply mean fortitude but something more, something less effable.

That is when luck or fate in the form of a New Yorker named Homer, fittingly enough, intervened. Homer, the doorman in a friend’s building, told me of a just-vacated apartment on the eleventh floor. He let me see it. Many things about the place struck me as exactly right, the light most of all. The apartment was window-lined. To the south, I could see a downtown cityscape, and to the west, the Hudson River. Everywhere I looked, I saw life. I went up to the roof. There, towering majestically, was the Empire State and, to its side, beaming, Lady Chrysler.

I’ve been here three years now. I have not yet and expect I never will cover the windows with blinds or curtains.

And just last night, I had a nice encounter on the subway while heading home. Sitting near me was a man about my age sharing a two-seater with a suitcase, a duffel bag, a backpack, and a stuffed garbage bag. He caught my eye (or did I catch his?); something in his beaten-down expression looked familiar.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He shook his head dolefully. “Too much for one man to take.”

“Yeah?”

That was all he needed—the conversational equivalent of a gunshot—and he was off, telling me in a rush of words how he was supposed to move today and a buddy with a truck had promised to help him out. The buddy didn’t show. And now here he was on fucking leg three of a solo relay marathon.

“That sucks, man,” I said, “really sucks. But you know what’s at the end of all this?”

He looked stumped, or just plain exhausted.

“A six-pack.”

The Moving Man cracked a smile. “Have one for me,” I told him as I got off at my stop.


Photo by Bill Hayes

The Weeping Man

One day not long ago, I left work at 5:15 and headed west on Fulton to catch the uptown 4/5 at Broadway. The sidewalk was packed thick with commuters. I felt weary and aggravated by the slow pace of the crowd. “Come on, people,” I muttered under my breath, “let’s move.” Just as I said this, I noticed something not right: a man, two or three people ahead of me, crumpling. A building caught his fall. I came to his side. He was pale; his face contorted; he clutched his arm. He was dressed in a suit, as if he had just left his office on Wall Street. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Are you sick? Do you need help?” I wondered if he was having a seizure. I felt for my cell phone in my pocket, ready to make a call.

He didn’t answer. He was Asian and, for a moment, I wondered if he didn’t speak English. I repeated myself: “Are you in pain? Do you need help?”

“No, I’m okay,” he said, and then began weeping. I looked around, not sure what to do. Passersby were watching. The young man stood and began walking slowly, still weeping all the while. I stayed by his side.

“You sure you’re okay?” I asked. “If I can do anything to help—”

He nodded, so I went on my way, taking the steps down to the subway station. When I rounded the corner, I saw he was behind me. Our eyes met. I slowed my pace so he wouldn’t lose track of me in the crowd. He followed me through the turnstile and onto the platform. He looked so distraught, his face a rictus of pain. I had a bad feeling, frightened that he might do something to harm himself. He came and stood next to me; he cried quietly but didn’t speak.

Fortunately, a train arrived immediately, and I ushered him onto the car. Commuters rushed through, pushing their way in, pushing hard.

He grabbed hold of a pole with both hands, so tightly his knuckles went white. He began to cry again. The subway car was packed so tightly that I was pressed right against him. I told him my name and asked his. “Kenneth,” he mumbled, saying it with derision.

“What’s going on, Kenneth?” I whispered.

He took a deep breath. “It’s all gone wrong!” he spit out. “My entire life.”

Had he lost his job? Lost a fortune? Gotten his heart broken? I didn’t ask. I put a light hand on his shoulder and let the train’s hum answer him.

We rode in silence for a while.

He looked up at one point. “You’re a good person,” he said brusquely. He tried to say it nicely, I could tell, but somehow it didn’t come out that way; it sounded like a mean accusation. It was actually sort of funny. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Listen,” I told him, “I have had days like the one you are having.” I told him how sometimes I used to go out to the pier at Christopher Street when it was empty, just to have a cry. “It’s hard.”

The car was packed tight yet completely quiet but for the sound of a young man in a nice suit and tie, crying. I looked around and saw alert, concerned faces—people not wanting to intrude but at the same time listening.

An Indian woman seated nearby caught my eye. She mouthed to me: Is he okay? Does he want to sit down? I asked Kenneth, but no, he wanted to stay put. The Indian woman squeezed through and joined us. There we were, three strangers steadying ourselves on the same subway pole. Pressing up against us from all sides were hundreds and hundreds of subway riders—in this car, and in the next, and in the next, in both directions, like a long retaining wall that keeps a whole mountainside from sliding down.

The Indian woman asked Kenneth if he had a place to go, people to be with tonight. He was going home, he answered. He had to make a transfer at Grand Central to get to Yonkers. She offered to go with him. He refused her help—no, no, he said—but she insisted she would be happy to go.

I thanked her. “I have to get off at the next stop. You’ll make sure he gets home safe?”

“Absolutely.” She introduced herself to him, her voice like a song.

The subway stopped at 14th Street/Union Square. I wished Kenneth well and thanked the woman again and stepped off.


Photo by Bill Hayes

How to Get Un-Lost

I don’t like to be late, but I am not averse to getting lost. Which, when I stop and think about it, seems to happen with some frequency. I don’t do it deliberately. But I also do not pre-plot every step and turn when heading somewhere I do not know, and I don’t have a map app on my phone. I am instead an asker of directions. I find this always leads somewhere interesting.

I got lost in New Jersey a few nights ago while driving to a friend’s dinner party. I’d borrowed a car since no train or subway stops near his home. He had told me basically how to get there, but I made my mistake, as one often does, by overthinking—taking Exit 14-A off the Turnpike rather than Exit 14, somehow telling myself in the moment that the “A” was undoubtedly a small detail he had neglected to mention. Soon I was driving sixty miles per hour in the opposite direction. A toll station appeared up ahead, leading to a bridge to god-knows-where.

Distracted, I got stuck in cash only rather than whizzing through ez-pass. Pulling up to the booth, I was surprised to find an actual toll collector—a human being. Even drugstores have replaced cashiers with automated scanners, after all. Just as startling was her appearance. She was old—to guess seventy would be kind. Her color was not good. She was very small. It crossed my mind that she existed on nothing but car fumes and the occasional tossed cigarette.

The toll collector stared back at me with a look of droll expectancy—as in, “I know exactly what you are going to say even before you say it.”

She let me say it anyway: “I’m lost. I took the wrong exit.”

Her mind was a MapQuest before MapQuest had been dreamt: “Straight ahead, veer right, turn around, go back the way you came,” she said.

I wanted to jot it down but the cars lined up behind me precluded this. I locked eyes with her and repeated: “Straight ahead? Veer right? Turn around? Go back the way I came?”

She nodded four times.

Wow, I thought as I drove off, if only all of one’s mistakes in life could be rectified so simply.

Of course, there are two types of lost: getting lost and being lost. I happen to have a good deal of experience in both. I find that the latter kind calls for the opposite of what the toll collector advised. Go back the way you came and you will inevitably end up in the same place. Instead, one must go in another direction—just pick one, even if blindly—and trust your inner compass. The only mistake you can possibly make is to be late for your own life.

1 Comments

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Christopher's picture
Christopher · 3 years ago

I enjoyed this very much. New Yorkers are some of the best people in the world. I’ve witnessed similar acts of kindness on so many ocassions and I’m glad you captured these stories for others to share.

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