Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Train

I get on the train. As I am wont to do at the end of a work day, I try to get a seat to myself and unwind a little, a process which is greatly aided by the relative solitude of an empty space next to me. If someone else is beside me, that process is delayed until they leave and I can finally let my breath out. I sit down and lay my backpack between my feet, prepared to plug my headphones into my laptop and review my part in The Messiah, which our stake will be performing in the Spring. The train is not crowded, but there are only a few empty spaces left, including the one next to me. A man climbs the stairs to the train just as the doors fold shut, he looks around quickly and moves right to my seat and sits. Rather close. I look at him and size him up: he is scraggly and unkempt with a long beard, and looks vaguely Native American. Though dismayed that a dirty smelly man is now sitting next to me, I tell myself that at least he will probably get off at the 900 S or 1300 S stop.

As soon as the words cross my mental lips, I cringe, and feel vaguely ashamed. Here was I with my laptop going home to my Sandy mansion feeling heartened that the person sitting next to me was in all likelihood far below the poverty level and would thus be getting off the train sooner, rather than waiting for the richer neighborhoods in the south valley. Various scriptures run through my mind as I sit uncomfortably beside him, laptop still encased safely in its home.

My logical self raged back: Hey! He probably makes more than you do! He could work full time at McDonald's and still make more than you! Don't feel bad about wanting him to move out of your personal space.... and on he went.

We reach 1300 S, and sure enough, the man leaves. My chest relaxes a little and I let out the air that almost always accumulates when my personal space is occupied.

Someone else gets on. Another man, younger this time, with blackened teeth and clothes that even my DI loving self would pass over. I could see the smell emanating from him, so I quickly get out my laptop and make it look as if the whole seat is necessary for the extremely important business I am working on. To my exhaled relief, he finds a friend and sits across from him, laughing loudly and crudely, his jaw jutting out, his eyes dark from a few punches.

Another stop. Another man, still younger but now dressed very trendy in jeans, leather jacket, ipod buds hanging down his chest, hefting a college physics book. He sits opposite me. The guilt of my anti-social behavior still fresh, I feel I should make conversation.

Physics got you stumped?
Huh? Oh, yeah, this stuff is pretty hard.
Yeah, I know, I used to TA for that class a few years ago.
Oh really? Yeah, I get most of it, but theres a few things that trip me up...

The conversation wanders off, and I gaze out the window at the passing decrepit buildings still standing after years of non-use. After awhile, he looks up at me.

Hey, can you see if I did this problem right?
Sure. Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Yeah... It looks like you've got it.
Great! Thanks.

Heartened a little that I was able to help, I resume my gaze out the window. I see the new hospital around 5400 S. Trendy college student puts away his homework and sticks in his earbuds, and I once again pull out my laptop, this time ready to practice The Messiah, but the cackle of laughter from Black Teeth enters my ears again. I turn up the volume.

Comfort ye... Comfort ye my people, saith your God... saith your God.

I'm a bass, but I consider trying out for that particular tenor solo. I skip ahead to another solo:

Thy rebuke hath broken His heart. He is full of heaviness; he looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man to comfort him...

Thats a pretty one I think. Maybe I'll try for that one instead. I look up. Black Teeth had left the train, leaving me and the other unassuming passengers to their own thoughts, their own work. Finally! Now I can concentrate! I think as the train pulls away from 5400 S, and I gaze out the window at the now receding hospital. The next chorus begins:

All we like sheep...


JonnyF said...

I've been thinking about making a comment on this for a while. Bear with me for a minute as a play at being a psychologist.
Isn't it interesting... we live in a society that prides itself on equality of opportunity -theoretically making it so everyone is master of their own fate. So, it follows that if a person is less successful than me, then it was because he didn't work as hard or he didn't really apply himself. Right?
Yet, we are members of a religion that promotes balance of mercy vs. justice, and really we know we should help people whenever we can and whenever they need it. And we certainly shouldn't judge. And, on an individual level, we want to be merciful so we will ultimately receive mercy.
In other words, when we see a person that is poor we have tendencies towards several different, somewhat conflicting reactions. It very dependent on specific circumstances. For example, if the scraggly man had sat next to me on the train, my inner conversation might have gone something like this:
"This guy smells bad, can't he take a bath? Well, maybe he doesn't have a place to bathe. That would be unfortunate. I feel sorry for him. Though it seems like with welfare and all that anyone can get someplace to live. Is it really that easy? I don't know. Maybe I should just ignore it, though I'm not sure I can convince my nose.
Hey, is this guy going to steal my laptop? That's unfair. Just because he is dirty doesn't mean he's a criminal. Though, I must admit, every time I have been accosted on public transportation, it was always by somebody that was dirty. I'll just keep an eye on my backpack and ... I've still got my wallet, right? Good.
Maybe I can scowl and look more threatening. I wonder if there's a certain way to sit that makes it look like you know karate...no, that wouldn't work, because if you recognized it you would probably know karate too, which wouldn't bode well for me.
Jon, calm down, he's just a person. At least mostly like you..."

And so it would go. Anyway, you get my point.

Nick said...

"I wonder if there's a certain way to sit that makes it look like you know karate..."

-Funniest line I've read all week.

After I wrote this, I actually wrote a whole post (that I obviously have not posted) about what our responsibility toward the poor is. The meat of my post is that if we should be willing to give up some things in order to be charitable, where does the line stop? Does it stop when we don't want to give up those toys that we REALLY want? Does it stop when we only have sufficient for our needs like a small house, cheap old car, food, medical payments, and thats it? Is there ever a point where we can say of our wealth: I've given enough, and am justified in not giving any more.

I can't say I got anywhere with the line of thought (which is why I didn't post it), but I suspect that the answer to that last question is 'no', which makes me uncomfortable thinking about it, because dang it, I want some of those toys that I've been dreaming about!