I am heading home after a show. It is late, I‘m traveling from Astoria to the part of Queens which is basically Brooklyn. It’s taking a while. It‘s the fourth hour of being on the subway this evening. I‘m tired. I don’t want to think about anything.
I‘m listening to a Marc Maron album. He‘s riffing about suicide and how it feels good to know that there’s always an option to opt-out. Something I’ve also said to friends kidding on the square.
A man had walked past asking for something. If you live in New York this is something to which you are deeply accustomed. The deluge of homeless people panhandling, begging, and haggling leaves you soaked with guilt.
It is not uncommon for no one to react when another human being asks for help.
A few minutes pass, I notice he‘s walking through to the next car. Or that’s what I think he’s doing. He begins to shout. He has leaned into the other car, calling for order.
Adrenaline pulses through me. But, I try to ignore what was happening. It is difficult to muster empathy for someone who is actively frightening you.
Then I see him clamber up on the connecting struts and cables to the other car. I do double-take. He is really there. He is really doing this. I look around the car. No one is moving. Some people are still looking at their phones. I can’t judge them, I was almost doing the same.
I quickly rise as I sling my backpack over my shoulder. “Hey!” I shout. Another man has also stood up and is walking with me to the door.
I would be lying if when all of this was happening I didn’t think “I don’t want my commute to get longer.”
I open the door, the wind is whistling past. The train is at top speed. Lights are flashing. I call out to try to calm the man hanging off of barely anything, his feet dangling over the edge.
“Hey! Hey!” The voice that comes out is the one I use to sooth the children at the preschool at which I teach. “Hey, man, what’s going on?”
He turns to me. He is homeless. There is genuine fear in his eyes. He seems to have just arrived back from an awful dream.
I grab his shoulder lightly. He jumps down off of the support strut. I gingerly pull him into the sickening fluorescent light of the subway car.
His eyes are wide. He is shaking. I put both hands on his shoulders and ask, “what going on?”
He says, speaking almost too fast to understand. Gabbling, they call it in professional circles. “I’m Bipolar, I’m off my meds, I just, I just, I just need some help.”
“How can I help you?”
“Couple dollars, couple dollars,” he says.
The other man who followed me has pulled out his wallet. I do the same. Even if this man was using this as a ploy to get money, I’d rather have five fewer dollars than to see a man murder himself. “Here, all I have is this five,” I say, offering it to him.
“Thank you, thank you,” he says as the doors open. I say, “I know of this place-“ quickly thinking of a pay what you can therapy program. But he is gone.
We’re at west fourth street. A station I use weekly and almost daily. He jets out of the train, ambling in three directions at once, speaking to himself.
I stand there for a moment. Then I sit down. I make eye contact with the other man, whose wife is already speaking to him about something else.
We both go back to our lives. I put my headphones in, I don’t push play. I hear a young man, who is part of a couple that is sitting nearest the door to the next car over, say “Crazy that it’s national suicide prevention week, huh?”
Glib. I’m nearly in tears and he’s glib. Yeah, man, it is crazy.
A few years roll down my cheek. Not because I am anxious, although I am, but because I know that this happens far too often.
I know that I am inflected with the same condition that made this man do what he did. I am grateful to have the privilege of home, health, and support. I know how easily all of that could slip away.
I know that so many people don’t have the same resources I do. I wish that they did.
I hope that he is alright and that you forgive me for not doing more.