For a few weeks there I wasn't blogging because I had nothing to say, but for more than a few days now I've really wanted to write this down. I just haven't had the time, or when i did I wanted to use it for other things. Normally I have some free time at work I could use to write this, but this week I'm subbing for a full-time guy on vacation, so my workload has skyrocketed. And when I get home in the evenings, I just want to play Call of Duty on X-Box Live with my cousin, then watch Glee while I chat with my girlfriend online. Add to that an extracurricular copyediting job that I've been doing for a national undergraduate literary magazine run at my school's campus, and I've been either too busy to too drained to write my thoughts down even when I wanted to. I have a spare moment now (I won't say when or where I'm writing this), so let's see if I can tap into the inspiration that struck me earlier this week.
For four years I rode the subway in New York City as I commuted to and from my high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, taking the 4, the 5, or the 6 train up and down, day in and the other one, and in all that time nothing changed about it. And from what I saw in few years since high school during occasional trips in the city, nothing really changed since high school either. Until now. Apparently, while I was away in Scotland, the MTA stepped up and started making subtle improvements, which seem not-so-subtle when they put advertisements in all their trains about them. Taking the R train to and from work, I've seen countless ads that start, "What's new?" and go on to tell you exactly what the MTA is doing to make our commutes easier. For example, a few days ago I saw one that read, "What's new? Less mystery," and proceeded to tell the reader about text message alerts and other services now available to get the word out about delays and the like. Of course, underneath "Less mystery," some clever vandal had written, "Less trains. Less clerks. Less cleaners." If I were a vandal myself, I'd solely use my delinquency to edit marks left by my peers, because I can't turn that part of my brain off, and in this case later passersby would see each black "Less" X'ed out and replaced with a big red "FEWER" and a little carrot-arrow indicating to place it. (Tangent: I saw the funniest vandalism on the downtown R train platform at the 49th St. stop the other day. Rather than drawing crude moustaches on the big faces on billboards, someone had written in downright elegant cursive script the word "moustache" on the upper lip of each person. It was artful.)
Some things on the subway never change, like people very loudly asking for money. They invariably start the same way, shouting over the sound of the train rolling over the tracks, making their voices heard over whatever hipster album is blaring in my headphones this week, saying: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," usually followed by, "Can I have your attention please?" or maybe, "This will just take a moment of your time." Then you get their story, or a tiny version of it, times are hard, he can't afford anything, what you'd expect to hear, until they walk from one end of the car to the other, holding out their cup or their hat for your change or small bills. I wonder how they get onto the train in the first place. Did they save up for a Metro Card months ago and never leave the subway system? Do they just hop a turnstile every day? Is it that easy? I should have more sympathy than I do, I realize that. My pitiful excuse is that time and continued exposure have hardened me to it, desensitized me. I tried to help a person begging on the subway once. I was going home from a weekend-long event at my high school, carrying a big bag of leftover snack foods. This man stepped into the car and told everyone he was trying to get a job but he couldn't afford socks, could he please have some money for socks? When he approached me, I offered him the food bag. He told me, "I just ate." Like I was a friend asking him out to lunch. He goes begging for sock money, but he's all good food-wise? I wound up giving all the food to a guy on a corner, holding a sign I didn't read, in a wheelchair because he had one leg, or no legs, I can't remember.
The R train has been no different this summer, with its share of vocal needy people, including one in particular whom I've seen at least twice, a blind man with a cane who likes to sing for his captive audience in a Sammy Davis, Jr. kind of style. I've only heard him sing one song. What was it? It's not "Lean on Me." It wasn't "You've Got a Friend in Me." It was something like that. Oh, "I'll Be There," that was it. He sings it in this stuttered, crooning voice, and I might be a less-than-decent person for saying so, but it's annoying. Point is, in years past and in recent weeks, I've been traveling through this world of confined spaces filled with others, never knowing but always expecting when you'll be trapped in that fast-rolling metal box with someone asking for some money and compassion. Then, the other day, as I'm sitting on the train riding toward the bus stop on my way home, I hear this announcement come on over the loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, the MTA would like to remind you that soliciting money in the subway is illegal. We ask you not to give. Please help us maintain an orderly subway." I had to write that down immediately, as so many questions and ideas raced into my head. How long has it been illegal, all this time or only recently? And why is it illegal? Is there something disorderly about asking for money on a train, or giving it? And what's the definition of "soliciting" exactly? If I'm riding the subway with a friend, and I ask him for a dollar, am I breaking the law? Is he breaking the law by giving it to me? And if someone really needy did beg for money in a subway car, and I gave to him, would that be illegal? Does that make me an accomplice?
What really captured my imagination and held it for an impossible ransom, demanding a helicopter from the hostage negotiator trying to talk it toward the window for a clear shot, was that second sentence. "We ask you not to give." It's like a stacicky voice from on high sounded throughout the train cars, prodding, "What would Jesus not do?" In a way I think that means the MTA is the anti-Christ. I've been asked to give to charitable causes countless of times, usually by television ads telling me what the cost of a cup of coffee a day can do, but I've never been explicitly asked not to help someone in need before. I can run wild with the implications in my mind. I imagine a totalitarian-ruled, neo-Roman society where being poor is outlawed, or at least letting people know you are. Big, half-torn posters coat the walls of subway platforms and public buildings, with the same message in bold, black text on a plain, white background: "WE ASK YOU NOT TO GIVE." Ayn Rand becomes required reading in all our elementary schools. My home state outlawed begging for money on the subway, bringing us one step closer to this world without charity, a world I just made up. I don't want to be political; I'm not even making an argument. I just want, however unlikely, to understand what I felt when I heard the words, "We ask you not to give." Part confusion, part appallment, part surprise, part relief. Why stop there, really? "We ask you not to care. We ask you to harden your hearts to suffering. We ask you to be selfish. We ask you not to treat others as you want to be treated. We ask you to pinch your pennies, hide your wallets, clutch your purses, keep a tight grip on what's yours, because damn it you've earned those dollars with hard work and restless hours, and no one has a right to take them from you." Good, but they all lack the concise poignancy of the original. Yes, better yet: "We ask you not to feel."