As anyone who rides public transit in any city on a daily basis will tell you, part of the bus-or-train-or-whatever riding experience is being asked for money. Depending on where you’re going and what time of day, it can happen fairly frequently. But you get used to it. You develop a way to handle the situation.
Apparently some people handle it better than others. And, yes, this is the part where I pat myself on the back for being the most basic sort of human being and cast aspersions on others. It’s what I do.
This morning, on the Oak Park blue line platform, I was sitting on the bench awaiting the arrival of my vaguely smelly chariot. Staring off into space, just sort of zoning out. To my left, a little further down the platform, a commotion. Voices raised in anger. Two men doing some verbal barking. Racial epithets flew. One of the men was well dressed, well heeled, caucasian, waiting for the train. The other was dingy, dirty, messed hair and cloudy eyed, bruised and scratched, african american. He was visibly upset. And he made straight for me.
Here we go, I thought. I got ready for the ensuing confrontation. Back straight, hands free, all senses on full alert. The man approached. The man composed himself, transformed himself. “Hello, sir. How are you this morning? My name’s Erik, what’s yours? Mike, it’s nice to meet you.” He produced a clipboard. “Could I trouble you for your signature? I’m walking the AIDS walk this weekend. I have AIDS. I plan to walk at least five miles.” Not understanding, I took the clipboard and pen. “Thank you sir. As you can see, most people are pledging at least five dollars.” And then, my foggy brain woke up to the fact that I was being asked for money. That this could be on the level, but could also have been a scam designed to relieve me of five bucks. And so, I declined. Handed the clipboard back. Was polite. Told Erik I didn’t have any cash on me. (A lie.) I expected a repeat of the earlier witnessed unpleasantness. “Well, that’s ok, Mike. Thanks for talking with me. Have yourself a great weekend.” He walked off. Down the platform, he approached a woman. I assume he gave her the same speech. She ignored him, stared straight ahead as if he didn’t exist. The next person’s words were drowned out by the approaching train, but they were short and if I am a lip reading expert (note: I am not) it looked for all the world to me like they said “Get lost.”
For me, what it came down to was that I lied to Erik. I told him I didn’t have money. I did it because I generally don’t give money to people on the street. Because in the uncontrolled world of the modern city, I don’t like to whip out my wallet on the street. Because you never know what’s going to happen. The best way to avoid getting into such situations is to not put yourself into them. I don’t claim to be a good person. I have no moral high ground. We all make our way in the world the best we can, we all compromise.
Everyone makes such choices, and everyone has their own rationale. It’s hard to judge such personal decisions. But here’s what we all need to remember, here’s what disgusted me about my fellow commuters this morning. From what I saw, they didn’t treat Erik like a person. I can’t exactly say what any of the Erik-and-others interactions were like. I can only say that when I spoke to him, he was lucid, polite, and non-intrusive. If he was like that with the others and if they answered him with angry words, dismissal, or just ignored him, then there was some basic aspect of humanity missing this morning at 7:30am on the Oak Park blue line platform.
No, Erik is not entitled to your money. What he is entitled to, what we’re all entitled to, is the expectation that personal interactions will be conducted on the assumption that we are all people. That we all have dignity. Even if one of us is dingy and dirty, with messed hair and cloudy eyes, bruised and scratched.