Thursday, November 7, 2013

To Remind the Species of the Species

I boarded the Red line train at Fullerton, and the man was curled up in the fetal position in the opposite doorway.

He was disheveled, dirty clothes, maybe late-30s to early-40. 

Everyone else on the train had given the man distance. He appeared to be sleeping at first glance, but shortly after the train pulled out of the station, he stood up, steps unsteady, and tried to engage with others on the train, who either ignored him, or moved away. As the train pulled out of Belmont, the next stop, he got a little more aggressive in trying to get attention. He put his fist in the face of a young 20-something in corporate clothes who was trying to escape the situation with earbuds in, eyes buried in his smartphone. 

The man wasn't trying to be threatening with his fist; it looked like he just wanted a fist bump. He wanted acknowledgment. 

The 20-something pulled away as far as he could in his seat. "No! Don't touch me. Get away." The man moved away. Something similar played out with two or three other passengers. He was getting even more aggressive. I started to look for the Call Operator button. I made eye contact with a guy at the other end of the car, and he indicated that the button was on his end, and he had already pushed it. 

The man had now backed up into one end of the car. A couple of women and another guy sat in their seats, keeping their faces in their phones or books, trying to ignore him. 

I decided to engage him to get his attention. I wasn't going to confront him, just try to chat. I had in mind something a friend had done in a similar situation, a couple of years ago. He diffused what could have been a volatile situation by nonchalantly asking the disruptive person for the time. 

I noticed what looked like a standard white iPhone earbud cord running from the man's front jean pocket, up and tucked into his tee shirt. As I approached, I indicated the cord and said, "Hey, what are you listening to?"

He looked at me, wild-eyed. "Huh?" or something like that. 

I pointed towards the cord again. "Your music. What are you listening to?"

I don't know if he understood me, but he seemed overwhelmed, not sure what to do now that he had someone's undivided, interested attention. Tears welled up in his eyes. He plopped down in the nearest empty seat. He began crying, and talking unintelligibly through his tears. 

I sat in the adjacent seat. "Yeah, man, I know it," I said even though I couldn't make out a word. We were pulling into Addison now, and the man who had pushed the button on the other end of the car was now waiting to flag down security once the doors opened. 

"We're going to get you some help," I said to the man, but I don't think he understood. 

The doors opened and security came. The officer was friendly and got the man off the train and onto the platform with no struggle. As the officer tried to talk to the man on the platform, tried to figure out his situation, the man who pushed the Operator button kept interjecting. 

"He was threatening people. Getting right up in their faces." He repeated it a couple of times over the next couple of minutes.

I didn't say anything, but I wanted to say, "Okay, jackass, we get it. He was being threatening. But he's obviously not in his right mind, and he wasn't intentionally trying to hurt or intimidate anyone. And you're a big guy, just like me. I doubt you ever actually felt threatened. Back off."

(Okay, maybe my actually thoughts in the moment were no more than, "Okay, we get it, asshole. Shut up." But you get the idea.)

The doors closed, and the train made it's way out of the station. One woman on that end of the car looked up from her book. "You handled that really well. Impressive." I thanked her, but I think some of my annoyance at her came through. I was annoyed because - and I admit I could be wrong - she seemed to lack any sympathy for the man just escorted off the train. "Thanks for calming down the rabid dog," she seemed to be saying. I know that may be an unfair judgement, and I know women have to put up a harder exterior in situations like this, but that was my perception in the moment. 

I pulled out my phone and gave my attention to the screen. I didn't want to carry on a conversation about it.


Back in August, Antoinette Tuff, a front office worker in a school near Atlanta, Georgia stopped a school shooting when she engaged the gunman in conversation. She told him stories of her own struggles, and encouraged him that he could overcome his own. She was the go-between for the entire conversation between the gunman and the cops outside the school. She prevented what could have been yet another mass shooting in a school by seeing the man with the gun as a human being who needed help instead of a monster, as terrifying as the situation was. 


A quote that's been thrown around on social media so much now, it's sentiment has been diluted, almost white noise in our news feeds: 

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."


When we live in a city, we get used to seeing unstable individuals on an almost daily basis. If we see them coming on the street, we try and avoid them. If they approach us, we deny eye contact, and walk by. If we're stuck with them on a train car, or a bus, more times than not, we busy ourselves and avert our eyes as to not be engaged. 


Whenever an unstable person who has created a scene leaves the train or bus, whether escorted off or by their own accord, there's always that moment when passengers finally look up and look around, and make eye contact with the other passengers. 

Relief. Maybe an eye roll. A small, shared laugh.

The threat is over.

But sometimes I wonder if we're misplacing where the threat actually is. Maybe it's not our physical safety that feel's threatened. I could be wrong, but maybe sometimes we feel threatened because the unstable person is a reminder that most of us are just a few bad breaks in life away from being the same as them. 


One of my favorite plays in college was The Boys Next Door, by Tom Griffin, about four men with mental disabilities that live in a group home. In one scene late in the play, Lucian, the character with the most profound disabilities, has to speak in front of a state panel to prove his mental state. As Lucien stands to speak, he gets nervous, he starts muttering, retreats into himself. And then the lights shift, and all evidence of his mental disability begins to slip away, and Lucien gives a frank, eloquent, and heart-breaking description of what it is like to live trapped inside his mind. The last words of the monologue have stuck with me over 15 years.

"I am here to remind the species of the species. I am Lucien Percival Smith. And without me, without my shattered crippled brain, you will never again be frightened by what you might have become. Or indeed, by that your future might make you."

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