Thursday, June 5, 2008

Wake Up

Early morning subway rides are usually boring affairs, with sparsely populated cars and half-asleep people moving to or from work. This morning, however, the train was a bit more full than usual and a somewhat startling incident had the train abuzz with chatter.

Three stops after I got on, an African-American gentlemen boarded the train. He was homeless, and as he started his spiel, he shook the coins in his hat. He ended with a curiously offensive and bitter comment that I had yet to hear on a subway car: "...and if I could get a donation from one Asian person today, that would be great." He had boarded the F train at East Broadway, the Chinatown stop. An Asian gentleman sitting just to his right, upon hearing the comment, retorted: "Up yours!" The man asking for change then proceeded to make some obscene gestures and comments, and things looked to be heating up. The man sitting kept his cool, and the change-seeker went on his way down the aisle.

All of us half-asleep commuters were wide awake now. It was clear that not everyone had heard the entire exchange. Questions and comments went flying: "what did he say?" and "the guy just wanted some change, leave him alone for chrissake" and "why you gotta ask him what he wants the money for, I have half a mind to punch that chinaman". Where that last comment came from, I have no idea.

It was a lesson in mob rule, as well as both perceived and real racism. As I had heard and watched the entire exchange, I attempted to explain it to the people sitting around me. But I found that people had heard and seen what they wanted to hear and see, and I wondered if I had done the same? No, I had clearly heard that last pernicious sentence, and it had soured me. Sympathetic comments to both parties fell along racial lines, while others on the train seemed indifferent.

I certainly understand when people are down and out, and Lord knows I'd like to believe that people would help me were I in such a situation, but to express frustration at the cards you've been dealt through comments such as that is only going to alienate those from whom you seek help.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Eyes crossed

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle"
--George Orwell