I don’t often pay attention to the outside world when I’m on the subway. I still love the convenience of it, and I don’t think the novelty of such a cheap yet efficient method of transport is going to wear itself thin on me quickly, but for the most part my modus operandi is headphones in and the rest of the world out when I’m on my weekly commute to my internship.
Today however I’ve been rocking my head cold, which makes for the general level of discomfort to be rather…discomforting. Discarding the idea of music I tried to read my borrowed ’50 Great Short Stories’ book my co-worker loaned me, but after re-reading the same page four times and still not understanding ‘Brooksmith’ I gave up on that and resigned myself to listening and noticing the other commuters – a non-contact sport that can be quite entertaining. After a few minutes of playing that I zoned out and stared at the cream white plastic interior while above the green dots turned to red dots after each subway stop.
But then you stepped on board my carriage.
I didn’t notice you enter exactly. It took a few seconds after the subway began to pull ahead to its next stop that I noticed you there. Well, the two of you. You were crouched down in a darkened navy blue coat jacket and pants, while who I can only presume is your son sat down on the floor next to you. He wore a red jacket, black pants, one glove, and a bucket with a bent-up note attached to the front.
You were counting notes you’d pulled from the bucket. Most of them were green which meant they were a one yuan note. Occasionally you’d tuck a purple note, a fiver, at the back of the pile. You finished counting pretty quickly and tucked the money away inside your jacket. Your son (I’m going to refer to him as son) sat and watched for a little while, then upon noticing the bucket strung around him with a wide black piece of fabric, he picked up the black fabric and let it go, watching the bucket swing back to his chest every time.
I imagine he’s done this act countless times, but his eyes shone like it was the first time.
You both leaned back against the seat behind you, taking a break from the unremitting begging that is your livelihood. I sat there for a bit, just watching. Your son never lingered his attention on anything for a length of time, I’m uncertain if he could, really.
You were just regaining some reserves of strength to start moving again when it happened.
The stench of human excrement is something with the uncanny ability to permeate the air very quickly.
Of course your son didn’t notice. Is it a blessing in disguise he didn’t show embarrassment? I don’t know. But everyone else noticed, including you. You checked to see if he was dressed okay to leave the carriage, pulling down his left sleeve so that it connected with his one glove and sealed in his body heat. You pulled both he and yourself to your feet, most of his bodyweight slung across your shoulders. All this time I just sat there, and watched. As you waited for the subway to stop at its next destination I dug through my bag to find my wallet. I pulled out a fiver.
And then I sat there, frozen by my absurd privileged thoughts about what these subway strangers would think of me abandoning my bag all of four feet, and giving up a perfectly decent seat, to hand money over to a beggar and his son.
My fear of giving you money, of what others would think of me, has haunted me all day.
At the very last second I did stand up to give you that money. Our fingertips connected as I palmed it to you. Our eyes met as you said something indecipherable. Then you turned all attention back onto your son and hauled both you and he towards the public toilet, as my subway pulled away from you.
What scares me is that this isn’t the first time I’ve had these thoughts, or experienced this moment. The level of poverty here is countless, and yet each time I see it it’s like the first time.
But I guess humans are good at forgetting the bad things. We have two world wars in our history to prove we don’t really learn from our mistakes. I know that even as I write this, I’m going to forget you, just as I have forgotten countless others.
But I will see you again, for the first time.
I just hope I act less like a human, and more like a person.