Incident On A Train
published in The New York Times Magazine
The guy behind me on the train was whispering into his phone, something about his soon-to-be-ex demanding the house on the river. Something about how he wakes up nauseous, almost as if he’s undergoing chemo, which he would prefer because at least cancer would be an enemy he could commit to hating instead of being conflicted the way he was, still loving his pre-ex but needing to fight her as hard as he could. With my head against the window in the seat ahead I was feeling vaguely nauseous myself, when I became conscious that a female’s voice was calling out weakly from the front of the crowded compartment. ‘‘Help -- someone help me.’’
Four or five tall males from various blue upholstered seats were already standing and weaving sturdily toward her up the aisle. Soon I was among them, though not at all sturdy, and in my socks.
At the front of the compartment, in the two seats that always face each other, a black man with a wild vacant gaze was drooling, locked in a rigid forward position; in the opposite seats, an Asian mother was trying to protect her two little children from his blind lurch. The tall men were already restraining the man, though it was obvious he meant no harm but was operating from panic deep inside some sort of seizure. The frightened mother was whimpering, ‘‘I thought he was just trying to be friendly, but then — ’’ as other men hustled her out of her seat and into the aisle with us. She and her children looked frozen with shock despite being encased in thick parkas.
‘‘I’m a Dad, give me the little one,’’ I said, and lifted her in my arms. The lightness of her being flooded me with warm memories.
Everyone in the full compartment was transfixed by the commotion. Our posse moved down the aisle to where two worried-looking people were gesturing that they had given up their seats. We got the mother and her children into the seats and sat them down. The older girl stood against the window in her black snow boots while I slid the little one into her mother’s arms. I leaned over the mother and rubbed the back of her parka to try and make the tears in her eyes go away.
Two or three nights earlier, I had seen a video of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler on ‘‘American Idol’’ comforting a contestant’s disabled wife in her wheelchair, rubbing and rubbing her back as he murmured kind words in her ear, and that’s what I found myself doing. Funny, because I always thought I hated Steven Tyler. That rubbery face always seemed sexually infantile, like he was halfway between a tantrum and an orgasm, but here I was taking guidance from his treatment of the woman. I was doing the same thing, rubbing and rubbing and speaking words of comfort to the children: ‘‘He didn’t mean any harm, he was having a medical problem, your mother is just a little stunned but everyone is safe.’’
I kept it up until the mother came to herself enough to smile and to begin hugging her children extra well. I leaned up; my back stiff. I turned and touched the tall men on their arms with admiration. ‘‘Thank you,’’ I told them, ‘‘you acted so fast!’’ Checking the front of the compartment, I could see that the drooling man was being attended by two capable-looking conductors.
I made my way to my seat in my socks, keeping my gaze down because I felt the eyes of many people on me. When I got to my seat the guy behind me was off his phone.
‘‘Are they going to be all right?’’ he asked me.
"Yes, everyone’s fine,’’ I told him.
I hesitated, then said, ‘‘I want you to know that I couldn’t help overhearing a little of what you were saying on the phone before, not a lot but just enough to tell me that you and I are having an identical crisis.’’ He stiffened, unsure whether to take offense or be embarrassed.
‘‘I’m going through it, too,’’ I said, ‘‘and you were using some of the same words I use these days to try to explain how horrible it is.’’
His face softened. ‘‘Good to know I’m not alone,’’ he said.
‘‘Hey,’’ I said, “I bet half the people on this train are going through times just as bad.’’
That cheered us both a bit.