When strangers become links in a chain of compassion

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Children enjoy a ride on the No. 7 subway line in New York City. Public transit can be a social equalizer, a place to share space and observe people from very different walks of life – for better or for worse.

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Hastily sitting down in the subway, I stared at my plastic-foam treasure chest – a free lunch from my residency program. I hadn’t eaten all day.

At the next stop, a man about my age (mid-30s), leathery-faced and wiry-bearded, plopped down next to me, his eyes dazed. His fingers found my boxed lunch, and he tightened his grip on it. 

Why We Wrote This

In the same way that antisocial behavior can darken one’s outlook and diminish self-esteem, the righting of an injustice can uplift and empower.

“No!” I said, wresting the box away and moving to the far end of the car. The man stood and staggered toward me, grabbing the box. When he put a hand on my chest, I let go. 

A man in his late 60s walked straight up to the other man. “No, pal, that’s not yours,” he said, plucking the lunch from the younger man and handing it back to me.

As the older man passed me, I asked his name.

“Kevin,” he said, shaking my hand. He had the grip of a good man. 

“Thank you, Kevin.”

At my stop, I alighted into a deluge. Squatting in one of the bus shelters sat a disheveled man with a cardboard sign: SEEKING HUMAN KINDNESS OR SPARE CHANGE.

I was soaked, I was tired, I was hungry.

Stepping into the shelter, I held out my lunch. “Do you like Greek food?”

Hastily sitting down in the subway car, I stared at my plastic-foam treasure chest – a free lunch from my residency program. I hadn’t eaten all day: too many patients. Masks are mandatory on the train, so I couldn’t open it until I arrived at the Veterans Affairs clinic. The doors opened at the next stop, and a man about my age (mid-30s), leathery-faced and wiry-bearded, stumbled in. 

He plopped down next to me, and his dazed eyes roved about. His fingers found my boxed lunch almost before his eyes did, and he tightened his grip. I pulled back, and he fixed his eyes upon me. 

“No!” I said, and wrested the box away, then trudged to the other end of the car for a seat next to a mother and three children.

Why We Wrote This

In the same way that antisocial behavior can darken one’s outlook and diminish self-esteem, the righting of an injustice can uplift and empower.

A few stops passed before I heard a husky, growling voice talking to itself, then shouting to itself, then shouting at me. By the reflection in the window, I saw the man stand and stagger to my end of the train. He lurched over me and grabbed the box. I held on until he put his hand on my chest, then I let go. He leaned back against the wall of the train. The mother and her children grew very quiet, and I turned toward the window again. It had begun to rain. 

Immediately I started to make excuses for him and myself: Perhaps he needed it more. I’ll buy something later. If there were a fuss, the train would stop and I’d be even later. 

My attention shifted from the rain sliding down the pane to a reflection of a man in his late 60s in a black T-shirt and a pair of jeans with a backpack slung over one shoulder. He slowly and surely walked across the rumbling floor of the train, straight up to the other man, and stood inches away from him.

“No, pal, that’s not yours,” the older man said in a no-nonsense voice, plucking the boxed lunch effortlessly off the younger man and reaching back without looking to offer it to me. “You’re going to get off this train,” he continued.

“I ain’t gonna get off this train,” the younger man said. “You gonna fight me?”

The older man shook his head, then extended his hands to rest just above the man’s shoulders – he did not touch him – essentially pinning him to the wall where he stood. There was what seemed like a long pause before the train came to a stop at the next platform. When the doors opened, the older man stepped away, pointed to the door, and said, “Get out of this train, now.” The would-be thief did as he was told, and the older man stood near the doors until they shut. 

Then he turned away to return to his seat. I extended my hand as he passed.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Kevin,” he said, shaking my hand. He had the grip of a good man.

“Thank you, Kevin.” I don’t know what compelled me to ask his name, but I had to know it. We shouldn’t be strangers anymore, I thought. Kevin hadn’t acted as though we were strangers – just neighbors who hadn’t been introduced. 

The accepted thing to do was to make excuses for a wrong, to ignore it, to sit and wait for the police to act after the fact. File a report, perhaps. 

Kevin’s intervention was a reaffirmation of municipal manners where “neighbor” is also a verb and what one thinks should be done by someone else becomes what one can do oneself. It’s this kind of “neighboring” that keeps communities from declining into anarchy.

Kevin nodded, smiled a little, and continued back to his seat. When his stop came, he passed by me once more. I shook his hand and thanked him again.

At the end of the line, I alighted from the train into the deluge and hustled toward the VA facility. Squatting in one of the bus stop shelters sat a disheveled man. As I walked by, I read his cardboard sign, in all caps: SEEKING HUMAN KINDNESS OR SPARE CHANGE.

I was soaked, I was tired, I was hungry.

Stepping into the shelter, I held out my lunch. “Do you like Greek food?”

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