Monday, April 20, 2015

Random Act: What Just Happened?

Last Thursday, I witnessed an act. 

I think it was one of those "random acts of kindness" that people try to tell me occasionally happen.  It seemed random, and I'm fairly certain it was kind.  I know it was over before it started, and I'm pretty sure no one else on the train saw it.

What I know:
  • The Green Line train was extra-crowded.  There were Nationals fans (and some Phillies fans), in addition to the regular 5:30 crush of weary commuters.  This always makes for a somewhat uncomfortable mix of happy, excited riders and tired, annoyed ones.
  • Across from me, there was a young black man, probably in his mid-20s, holding a sleeping 4-to-5-year old girl, presumably his daughter. He was 3/4-asleep, himself. Next to them, another daughter, approximately 7 years old, was also failing to stay awake, her book bag on the floor between her feet.
  • At L'Enfant Plaza station, a young white man, probably also under 30, stooped briefly in front of the snoozing family, as if picking something up from the floor, handed it to the groggy dad, and quickly exited the train.
  • The young father was reticent. And no, I do not mean "reluctant," because A) I know the difference between reticent and reluctant, and B) There was no time for reluctance. This guy just appeared, put a folded piece of yellow paper into the dad's hand, and was gone.  The young father, his hands literally full, was shy. He had been keeping entirely to himself and his small brood.  When the older girl had asked how many more stops, no one heard his reply but her. When the man handed him the note, which was folded around at least a few dollars in cash, the dad remained silent. He glanced up in surprise, but quickly closed his hand around the note and returned his focus to his sleeping children.
  • At the next stop, after giving the older girl a couple of gentle pokes and a quiet "one more stop," he looked around briefly, then snuck a peek at the note and the cash. He smiled. It was an exhausted, but surprised and - I think - touched and grateful little smile. He tucked the gift into the only pocket he could reach - that of his sleeping little girl.

What I do not know:

What had just happened? Technically, I cannot completely rule out the possibility that the dad actually had dropped the item. Nor is it 100% impossible that he and the young white male know each other, and that the item handed off was expected. I do rule these out, though.  I just do.

So... My mind was off and running. How much money? Why? What did the note say? Was it even KIND?

What it probably said was, "God bless you," because that's what it probably said. 

It might have said "Next time you take the train, hand this to the person next to the door as you leave."

Or... "Pay it forward."

Or... "I found this $35 on the platform. I want you to have it."

Or maybe it was a large amount of money, and the note said, "You need a car," or "For college."

But maybe it wasn't at all as it appeared to be.  Perhaps the note said, "Get that kid some shampoo, loser!"

Or... "Don't spend this on booze/drugs/anything that says 'Frozen'/gummy bears."

Or... "I don't like seeing kids on the train - take a cab next time."

Or... "I have made a LOT of assumptions about you and your situation, so please take this and let me go home and feel good about myself."

Or... "Metro's too expensive."

Now, I can't pretend to know what the guy was thinking, when he handed the note and cash to a fellow Metro rider. It's possible that he was utterly misguided. The father and his two girls showed no outward signs of need; they weren't sitting there in rags, and their final stop turned out to be the Navy Yard/Nationals Park station - not exactly the projects. The altruist may have made any number of flawed assumptions, here. For that matter, I may be doing exactly the same thing, now, because really I simply do not know what it was that I witnessed. 

But here's the thing:  IT DOESN'T MATTER. It doesn't matter what the giver's motivation or intention was. It doesn't matter what the receiver's situation or level of need was. A gift was handed from stranger to stranger - a gift that may or may not have even been needed - and neither race, nor income, nor station in life nor anything else mattered in the moment that that gift went from the one hand to the other.

What matters is that someone appeared, did something for someone else, and moved on.  Whether it was a token gesture, or a life-changing event, what matters is the fact that it was done.

Once again, I am here (rather belatedly) prompted by my friends at Studio 30 Plus, who this week gave us "reticent" or "shy." 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Exit: The Unanswered Question of Timothy

[The following was found in 1937, scrawled in the hieroglyphic patois of the American hobo, on a 3-by-4-foot piece of plywood, in Katy, Texas. I did the best I could to translate it.]

My Dear Brothers,

If you are reading this, I am already dead.  If you are not reading this, I am already dead, just the same.  If you are reading this and I am for whatever reason NOT dead, I apologize, because I fully intended to be dead, by the time you read - or did not read - this.

Anyway... I thought about making a hole in the water, but I couldn't find any, in this dusty wasteland, so I decided to grease the track - to take the hobo shortline.  I wanna say that I'm awful sorry to the crew of the train that hit me, and for the mess I must've made.

So.  I'm dead.  Boo hoo.  Some of you will wonder why.  Was it all too much - the hard days and cold nights and hunger and whatnot? Was it one too many miles on my bad knee, and all that agony? Was I just following in the footsteps of my suicidal parents? Maybe, but there was no way I was going to kill myself with a meat grinder, like my father did, or a puppet, like my dear mama.

You might think it was my gimpy, hooch-rotted liver that drove me to do it. Or maybe I took the easy way out, rather than face Ol' Barb Stab-You-Quick, who was mad at me. You might think I just wanted the attention. Another good reason could be the lifetime of bullying I've endured, at home, in school, and on the road. I'm sure somebody out there thinks my fear of beans must've had something to do with it. Of course, my poor broken heart should come to mind as a motivation for my suicide.

But the real reason might surprise you. I chose to grease the tracks because-- hang on. 

Sorry. I hear the westbound comin' for me. I'm so sorry.


The Unanswered Question of Timothy is not buried here. No hoboes are buried here.

Another fun writing prompt from STUDIO 30-PLUS. This time, it was PATOIS. Also, please note that the hobo names used herein come from John Hodgman's list of 700 hobo names, from his brilliant almanac, The Areas Of My Expertise. More about that, HERE.