I saw a man on the subway tonight wearing a light blue checkered short sleeve button up shirt. I did not see his face, but his hair was thinning and the majority of it was grey. He was slumped into his seat, palms turned up and resting on the tops of his legs. His head was hanging from his neck as it lolled along with the movement of the train. He was asleep. And by the apparent damp spot on his shirt, had been in a deep slumber for more than a couple of stops.
It’s not unusual to see people sleeping on the train. It’s really common actually. Most people let their chins rest heavily suspended from limp necks, resuming consciousness to check the progress of their journey as the brakes are applied and another stop nears. They are simply resting their eyes until the moment they have to be in motion again.
This man was different. He had an air of vulnerability. Maybe it was because one shoelace was untied. Or maybe because he wasn’t traveling with anything in his hands. Maybe it was the slow drip of saliva pooling on his shirt. Or maybe it was the obvious space in the crowded car that the rest of the passengers had made around him. But as an outsider, an observer, it felt like his presence went slightly against the grain of the rest of the people who were near him. There was a young girl in her twenties gently perched next to him. She was curving her body away from the sleeping man and was wary of his movements with the motion of the train. As the train slowed for each stop, the momentum would carry his shoulder two or three inches past the boundary of his own seat and encroach on hers. Once or twice his arm would slide out of place and his meaty hand would rest against the side of her leg. She definitely was not comfortable in the space that she occupied, yet she did not choose to relinquish the seat until the last minute when she had to exit the train.
A man in a grey suit was standing beside me. When the girl stepped off, he slid into her place on the seat. He sat in that seat. Upright, and uncaring that the man he was seated next to was in such a capacity that his space might be invaded. The man in the suit set his hook-handled umbrella on its point, and rested both hands on top of it. He was not engaged in any electronic device. He wasn’t reading. He wasn’t with anyone. He was commuting, quietly, with no distractions to occupy his time spent on the train. He looked tired. Like his day had been long. The sleeping man was still unconscious to the changing flow of bodies around him, as passengers exited and entered the car in a rush. He did not look up when the female voice spoke over the speaker announcing the next station. Instead, his head hung even more heavily and came to rest comfortably on the shoulder of the man in the suit. The man in the suit showed no pause. He continued to rest his hands on his folded umbrella, and allowed his neighbour to continue his time in the land of Nod.
I watched, amused at this strange encounter between strangers. The man in the suit chose to sit there. He had watched as the sleeping man took over the young girl’s space, much to her chagrin. He had noticed the string of drool that attached his lower lip to the flap of the shirt pocket. And, when the sleeping man was inevitably shifted by the train’s jostling, he provided a support. I snickered quietly, out of amusement and appreciation for the tolerance of the cognizant man in the grey suit. He quickly smiled, knowing what I was gesturing at, and just as quickly continued to cast his gaze lazily upon the car. He was resting, too. The train arrived at my stop and I stepped off into the crowd. As I toed the congested line that divides opposing directions of traffic on and off the platform, I thought and wondered if the man in the suit had felt the same vulnerability from the sleeping man as I had and if he had chosen to extend a kindness and sit in a seat that few passengers were eager to occupy. Or whether he was so weary from his own day, that it did not matter that his shoulder was being used as a head rest. Or whether it has something to do with the sheer number of people in this city, that it is easy to be accustomed to a shrunken bubble of personal space. My Western senses were shocked, confused, and humbled by the man in the suit. It felt like I had witnessed a piece of human nature that is in danger of becoming extinct. Perhaps without intending to, or maybe not even wanting to, the man in the grey suit put a stranger’s comfort before his own.