I sat down on the #1 train downtown, diagonally across from a college student, most likely en route home, by the looks of his baggage. At the next stop, an older gentleman, sporting a sprig of holly in his breast pocket, took the empty seat next to our young traveler. Without missing a beat, the older man engaged the younger in conversation.
As any seasoned subway traveler would, I listened in without giving myself away. And what unfolded was lovely.
First topic – cars. What he owned, and how much he had paid. The prices, way back when, were ridiculously low….I won’t quote them here, lest I break your hearts. And the makes and models I have forgotten, no doubt to the detriment of my relationship with an automotive enthusiast (Hemming’s Motor News, anyone?).
Then, on to the War (WWII, that is). He was 18 in 1941. Our student rider was not much beyond that age. And, then his children – where they lived, how old they were, or would have been (one had “gone to heaven” a few years ago).
My attention must have drifted, for when I came round again, he was showing our college student a 2 inch stack of photos, clearly old, that he had produced from somewhere – a back pocket, perhaps. Which led me to believe that he does this often. He was off to see his physical therapist, he had said – clearly not to a family reunion. So, the photos were not just put together for a special event that day.
Our train got to 34th street, where our young traveler debarked, not without exchanging “goodbyes” with our WWII veteran, who encouraged him to “make it!” before the doors closed.
I got out a few stops further south, and looked back to see our man engaging a new stranger, who took the student’s former seat.
That WWII vet might have been my Dad, now dead a year and of the same vintage. That student could have been me, years ago, sitting with my grandfather. And perhaps these tender thoughts opened my heart to contemplate the gift we give each other when we engage. Especially with those we say we love and care for, but even for the stranger who simply wants acknowledgment.
Musing on this, I was prompted to imagine the complete opposite – the lack of any human contact, and what that might spawn. For example, solitary confinement.
For a harrowing description of this form of punishment, and its effects, I commend this article:
I exited the subway at 14th street. As I made my way up the steps to street level, I saw the man who is usually hunkered down by the top stair, positioned to ask exiting riders for money. I steeled myself against the expected request. I averted my gaze. When I walked by, in my studied state of avoidance, he said, “Good morning.” I looked at him, puzzled. I returned his greeting.
And, I walked on, a bit ashamed. All he wanted was to be acknowledged, one of the most basic, life-giving acts we humans can afford one another.
It costs nothing, yet it is so easily withheld. And, it may mean everything to someone, someday.