I don’t usually take the A train home. It doesn’t go to my neighborhood. But Monday I went a different way, and there I was, at Columbus Circle, hopping on the uptown express.
The A train skips straight from 59th to 125th (which, if you’ve never been here, is a fairly long way), and I turned on my new music, cracked open my book, and read a few pages. Nothing special about this ride.
When we reached 145th, I had one more stop to go, and being me, I got up from my seat far earlier than I needed to and went to stand in front of the door. There was a man leaning on the door, as people do, and he was covered, from neck to waist, and probably lower, in tattoos.
Because he was taller than I am – shocker! – I was at about neck level, and my eyes focused on an oddly shaped tattoo I’d never actually seen on a person’s skin before, though of course I’d seen it in pictures, and all over South Korea, since it originated as a Buddhist symbol. But this tattoo wasn’t meant to signify peace and harmony.
And now, where was I? I was in Harlem, in a subway car full of every possible ethnicity, including people this dude’s personal philosophy would categorize as worthless, myself included. His head wasn’t completely shaven, but his hair was short, so I guess he fit the description. He was listening to music, just like me and a lot of other folks, and if it hadn’t been for that tattoo – along with a few other similar ones – he would have been the same as everyone else.
I wondered what he was doing there. Most likely he was on his way home or to work, I figured. And the A train was just the fastest way there. Even hateful folks need to save time, I guess. And maybe it was just his rotten luck he had to suffer through my kind – including a bawling black baby, on this day – on his way there.
I worried for a second he might be up to no good. Maybe I’d end up on the news as a victim of a racially-motivated subway massacre. A college (Princeton!) graduate, struck down in his prime.
Al Sharpton would be mad.
But after my brief fantasy, I slowly turned my gaze higher and looked him straight in the eye. I saw disgust in there. I saw anger. I saw hate.
But you know what I didn’t see? Life. The man was dead inside.
To get to where he was, you have to suck all the life from your body. To put hate before love, to put anger before joy, is to extinguish yourself. And it only took a split-second of eye contact for me to see that in this very strange stranger.
So instead of becoming enraged, instead of flipping out, I smiled. And when I got off at the next stop, I walked away from him and I didn’t look back.
Because this guy wasn’t scary. This guy wasn’t something for me to fear. He was just sad. And I was filled with joy to know that all of the people in my life are more alive than he ever will be.
And that’s what I learned on the A train.
Peace and love,