Walking Down the Train Car

An Un/ordinary Story


I wrote this up about a week ago and just fleshed it out. In the past as a coach I've helped people to train for marathons, triathlons, and the like. But what I recently saw on the train requires a lot more strength, and not quite sure how a person would coach someone to handle it.

(Random note, as I write this by a subway stop my keyboard cover just flew off as the oncoming train wind tunnel came. It flew something like 35 feet to the other side of the track and down. The first casualty of this blog post and the first time I've typed directly on this keyboard.)

On the Train

Sitting here on a subway. It’s 9:30pm. About 15 minutes ago someone walked onto the train, ranting and walking around erratically. Really delusional I guess. I was worried he might get too close to someone and things would escalate, but he soon after just jumped off the train and continued whatever he was up to.

Then 15 minutes after that (just now), I’m back at some email work and I heard someone come through the train car, similarly sounding mentally unstable, but this time asking for money. Usually, I’ll give them my email and/or a dollar if I have on me—but lately I have tried to use judgement not to engage in a situation that might reasonably cause a commotion (longer stories on that; but I still try to nod and acknowledge them somehow). And especially with the previous guy who came on, I kinda just put it into the 'be cautious, don't escalate' basket.

But as this dude proceeds down the car, my attention was/is caught by him repeating the same couple of lines over and over, with the same cadence: 'I have lung cancer and a fractured back. I could use some help. I’m homeless. God bless you.'

As he methodically walked down the car repeating the same couple of lines like a metronome, I don’t think anyone gave him a dollar or acknowledged his existence. By the forth or fifth repetition, the emotions started to hit me: The thought of him summoning the strength to continue panhandling just the same in the next car despite the total rejection by others-that is tremendous. In the tech scene here in NYC, I'll often hear the stories praising the founders who despite so many people telling them 'no', still continued on their path. Yet this one panhandler probably gets more no's in one day than a startup founder gets in a year. In fact, I can't think of another person who would get that many forms of rejection and/or disapproval. And yet despite all of this man on the train maintained his composure and it seems continued to hope the next car would be different.

Here is a man who is on what looks like his last leg in life: physically bent out of shape (in an apparently very painful way), financially destitute, likely emotionally drained, and—I had thought—had also mentally lost it. The strength to hold on and continue day in and day out like that is incredible.

The strength needed for someone born with good fortune to give back to the world through tech/biz/nonprofits, on the other hand, pales in comparison to the fortitude needed for this man to take this one singular walk down the subway car with dignity.

Whether or not this man panhandling finds it difficult is another story. We can still marvel at athletic/academic and other feats even if a person did it with little effort, or even less self-awareness.

People might call that insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. And perhaps it's not the best way to achieve one’s goals. But if we are going to step back from goals and think about the display of strength—it’s not insane, it’s incredible.

Anyway, my stop is here. Gotta head out. The emotions just stopped me in my track, thinking about this man as a model of strength.

Post-Train Reflection

I just got home. Just going to quickly finish off the thought here. This moment reminds me of the homeless dude with the cart. Where the common denominator between the two is stumbling into an inspiring model. For the man with the cart it was conscientiousness, for this dude today it was strength and fortitude. (Another denominator: unlike a bunch of notes littered on my computer, I suspect this ends up as an actual post as writing it is rather cathartic, a way to express the intense emotions of the moment.) I’m listening to an audiobook on Napoleon now (I've been on a little biography kick of late). Yet I find myself thinking how there’s as much or more to learn from this dude asking for money on the train than from Napoleon and the other historical figures I’ve read about.

And whether or not the dude is putting on an act is less of a concern. Because suppose it was the ultimate act—on a stage on Broadway. That scene in the play would still be an inspiring act to learn from and serve as a model.

I don’t know if this makes sense, but right now these words come to mind: the one who lives while having the least to live for lives the most.

Signing off for the night. Peace.

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