3 April 2015
Elaina’s letter about our near-death experience in South Carolina and the two selfless people who came to our aid reminds me of a smaller—but no less significant—incident that occurred as I headed home from the conference.
Boarding the El from O’Hare Airport to the Loop in Chicago, I sat down with my suitcase in the aisle and an open window seat beside me. Just ahead sat two white people, each occupying one of those paired handicapped/elderly seats that face the center of the train. As we moved toward the city, the train began to fill up. A black man and his son, about twelve years old, boarded but could find nowhere to sit, let alone sit together. Meanwhile, numerous seats were available beside passengers who peered at their phones, pretending not to notice, damned if they were going to make room for a stranger…or…was it something else?
I try not to always read race into things, but it struck me that the hold outs were generally white. Only a split-second passed before I scooted over, jammed my suitcase further in, straddling it awkwardly, and beckoned to the boy. He looked at his dad, who nodded assent, and sat next to me.
It was a long ride into the Loop, about half an hour. Neither of the two white people sitting in the handicapped row bothered to move their stuff and make room for the boy’s dad. The dad eventually found a spot a few rows away and sat with his head turned to keep an eye on his boy. I scanned the crowd, incredulous at their collective indifference, and saw this exchange:
The dad mouthed to his son, “You okay?”
“Yeah,” mouthed the boy.
The train rattled on. Eventually the suitcase shifted and our knees came into contact. I didn’t care, though I became mindful, in fact rigidly mindful. If I dragged on the suitcase and moved away my leg, would the boy or his father perceive that our contact repulsed me? I hated being so deeply conscious of such thoughts, but I wanted them to know it didn’t bother me at all, neither that he was a stranger nor that he was black. It shouldn’t matter…incidental contact often occurs in tight public spaces. Perhaps by feeling so conscious of these things I negated my own point. Nevertheless, I left my leg there and so too did he.
Eventually, a spot freed up beside the boy’s dad and he waved his son over. The boy didn’t seem to be in a hurry to escape me; he waited till the train’s ride smoothed out before rising and sauntering over to his dad. The dad looked over at me and mouthed, “Thank you.” I inclined my head with a smile.
That was it. I experienced what I considered a significant moment with this man and his boy, an unspoken connection, though I can only assume that they felt the same. Actually, I’m certain they experienced some kind of sensation. When you commune in silence with people, you look directly at them. You comprehend the emotion in their eyes and in the way they hold their bodies. Your message flows through the ether like an invisible liquid. As it envelops the recipient, you and they acknowledge each other’s humanity.
Sadly, exterior forces driven by social tensions in this country caused us to feel overly conscious of this process, when it ought to have come naturally. Regardless, we made eye contact and we all said without words: “I SEE you as a human who just needs a seat, and I’m okay with your presence here beside me.”
We human beings should not need to feel that conscious awkwardness due to someone’s skin color…or any other perceived difference. We should not go through life feeling the need to make any point at all. We should simply move over, no matter who needs the seat, because it’s the right thing to do.
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