Subway Bodhisattva

New York has become a wind tunnel, with December’s icy gusts tearing through the “canyons of steel” so lovingly described in Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” Had he written a song called “Winter in New York,” I’m fairly sure that the words “Fuck, it’s cold!” would have been included in the lyrics. The frigid temperatures have made pedestrian life, already a full-contact sport in New York City, even more competitive and fraught with peril.

Negotiating crowded sidewalks in a perpetual New York hurry is a dicey proposition, no matter what the season. New Yorkers have a penchant for jaywalking, while taxi and delivery drivers have a penchant for running red lights. Rubbernecking tourists cause pedestrian pile-ups, stopping abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk to take pictures or consult their maps. Very, very important people weave haphazardly throughout the crowds, so engrossed in their iPhones and Blackberries that they can’t be bothered to watch where they’re going.

Now, take all of the above hazards and put patches of ice on the sidewalk. Make everybody really tired and cranky from holiday retail madness. Then factor in the wind chill, and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty pissed-off pedestrians, most of whom are headed to the subway.

And the subway! Oh, the humanity! The underground platforms are freezing, the subway cars are overheated and overcrowded, and you can bet that you’ll be hit up for loose change and/or “serenaded” by vagabond urban minstrels of dubious talents for the duration of your ride (which is likely delayed due to “necessary track work”).

Once, on the subway, a girl who was getting over a cold began coughing. It was one of those eye-watering, throat-tickling, can’t-make-it-stop-whatever-you-do coughs. The girl had no water or lozenges with her. She was clearly mortified but unable to control the coughing, and the train was being held between stations, so she couldn’t leave. The people around her probably thought, “Great. All the subway cars in New York and I have to share one with Doc Holliday. Bitch better not give me swine flu.”

If I’d been sitting next to her, I don’t think I’d have been able to conceal my irritation. I’d probably have just reached for the Purell and counted the seconds until I could just get away from yet another annoying human being. Just one thing prevented me from doing so, though: I was the coughing girl.

Just when I thought I might actually cough up a kidney or die of embarrassment, a gentleman sitting near me reached into his pocket and, smiling, proffered a Halls cough drop. Cough-induced tears running down my cheeks, I could only gesture my gratitude. He got off at the next stop, so I wasn’t able to thank him properly. I’ve thought of him ever since as a “subway bodhisattva.”

New York City is home to over 8 million people. Manhattan alone boasts a population density of almost 70,000 people per square mile. With those numbers, we’re bound to get on each other’s nerves, especially during the freezing temperatures and frenetic pace of the holiday season. But today, as I venture into the cold to teach a voice lesson and feed the thronging masses at the restaurant, I will keep the memory of my subway bodhisattva’s simple act of kindness close at hand.

At the end of the day, we’re all just “annoying human beings” doing the best we can, and we all are capable–and worthy–of compassion.

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9 thoughts on “Subway Bodhisattva

  1. Very, very important people weave haphazardly throughout the crowds, so engrossed in their iPhones and Blackberries that they can’t be bothered to watch where they’re going.

    Loved this line above as well as the happy ending to your story.

    But, I was surprised to hear you overcome your cough enough to feed the masses and sing for your supper.

    michael j

    Really like this!

  2. Hilary,

    Great blog and enthralling writing! I love NYC, never have lived there, would like to but can’t afford it! Anyway, keep on writing and singing — that’s another thing for which I envy you.

    Cindy, at Gherkins & Tomatoes

    • Thank you, Cindy! As a lover of all things food related, I totally enjoy your blog! New York awaits, whenever you’d like to visit…in this recession, there are actually more bargains than ever! (-; Happy holidays!

  3. Your story has stayed with me and has me thinking about how I would have responded to you in my meditative state on the train – probably would regard you as a white devil come to spread the plague and tempt me to return to the world sooner than planned. Not really exactly the buddha enriched view of the world I would like to realize. Hopefully, given the opportunity with this new pov, I could rise to the occasion and be a kind of kind stranger.

    • Ross, I so appreciate your comment. The simple gesture of this guy smiling at me while I was hacking up a lung, then his offering of a cough drop, was a deep moment for me, too. Such a small gesture, but so filled with meaning. It’s really difficult for me to remember that we’re all “in this together,” so to speak, and that we all have the capacity for expansive generosity. I’ve slipped in my meditation practice this week and am newly resolved to get back on the horse! I, too, aspire to boundless compassion but all too often find myself mired in petty grievances: with myself and with others. Thank you so much for your thoughts!

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