We were in the middle of a cyclone bomb. The train was stopped high up above the East River, whiteness blurring above and below, the Manhattan skyline erased. I watched cars edge along through the yellow snow of the unplowed road that ran parallel to the track.
Down the train car I heard a thump. A man was on the ground, his face cheek-down in a puddle of muddy snow water. None of the other passengers moved, or even looked up: It’s the right thing to do in New York City. I often adopt this attitude, the aggressive thought that I have no obligation to bring kindness or generosity to any of the hundreds of interactions I have with strangers throughout the day. In fact, some strangers would be disturbed by unsolicited kindness. I would be.
Still, a sliver of my humanity protested at the man lying on the muddy floor of the D train. Helping him would call attention to myself. Helping him might get me into an uncomfortable train-bound relationship that I wouldn’t be able to get myself out of. The passengers on this car had already proven their unwillingness to entangle themselves in a stranger’s problem. Did I want to risk it with this man who was still lying face down in the mixture of snow water and city-shoe filth?
Before my American fear overwhelmed my humanity, I walked down to the middle of the car, where the man still struggled in his puddle.
“Did he fall?” I asked the bespectacled middle-aged man who sat nearby, reading the paper.
“He’s homeless,” he replied.
“Ok, and he fell.” I turned to the fallen man.” Are you ok?”
“Yeah I’m ok,” he groaned.
“Do you want to sit on a chair?”
He placed the palm of his hand on the floor and pushed himself up.
“You’re not from here.” The newspaper man was shaking his newspaper and his head at me.
“I live here.”
“Yeah but you’re not from here. There’s no way you’re a New Yorker.” His eyes burned at me from behind his glasses. He was furious.
I watched the fallen man pick himself up off of the floor and sit down on a chair. He had plastic identification bracelets on his wrists, and what looked like a bruise above his left eye. I walked back down to the other end of the car, glad to be away from both men.
I’m not a New Yorker. A New Yorker accused me of it, and he was right. He seems tired. Maybe he’s tired of battling to preserve his city against a daily invasion of millions. His New York is a clam shell at the bottom of the rippling river, shut tight and covered with barnacles. Inside of the shell, a dark pearl waits. Inside of the shell, is it empty?