I step out onto the train platform and into the cold, dim hall at the mouth of the city. With a bracing breath, I wrestle my baggage and join the trickle of bodies making their migration into the train station. To our left, the train engine bellows with deafening, mechanical protests. We stream forth, diverging and converging around pillars and luggage carts. Icicles drip from above, lining small holes that reveal a gloomy sky. Across the tracks, steam erupts from subterranean vents. Crossing the tracks is trespassing and a punishable offense, the signs proclaim. There is a half-empty bottle of soda that has fallen forgotten under the train. “It’s a shame for it to go to waste,” I muse. I am trying to take in this curious place and going at my customary, meandering pace, but people keep surging past. Everyone here has such large strides. I should keep my gaze trained straight ahead. Things happen fast in the city.
I hear a dull thud behind me. The bag balanced on my suitcase has slipped and spilled. My bottle of water is rolling away. A tall woman says “Sorry,” brushing against me as she hurries past. The passengers from the train keep pouring out. The stream picks up speed. I feel dizzy walking against the flow, as if I am trying to swim upstream. They must have seen the obstacle in their path, because they side-step the bottle like a river flows around a stone. Faces keep flowing by. I wonder if someone will stop and help, but the rapids keep rushing and I feel my foothold start to erode. Soon I’ll be dislodged and swept downstream. A wave of despair seizes me. “I am floundering and flailing for all to see, yet no one slows to offer an oar.”
The current slows. I paddle upstream and pluck my bottle from the ground where it lays still spinning. “It’s silly to spare it any thought,” I think. Wouldn’t I also be racing to get out of this cold and into the warm arms of my loved ones waiting for me after this long journey? Wouldn’t I be rushing to quiet my grumbling belly? Wouldn’t my jaw be set, my head swimming with my own concerns? Wouldn’t I be walking, head tilted down, immersed in the glowing world held in the palm of my hand? Would I notice someone looking for something they’d lost? How can I blame the people who passed me by? They owe me no ounce of consideration. With that in mind, It’s all the more important to be vigilant for people in need. There are a great lot of people in the city, but it seems to me that we all creep through the shadows of giants, unseen and blind.
There is another thud. Stupid bottle slipped out of my bag again. Cigarette smoke burns my eyes. “Couldn’t they wait until they got outside?” I grumble. I turn around with a sigh, and immediately a thin, white woman behind me stops in her tracks and bends to pick it up. Her mouth and eyes are punctuated with fine lines. Her face is leathery in the familiar fashion of chronic smokers and inveterate barflies. She is wearing a leather jacket and pajama bottoms with cartoon characters on them. Her hair is in a messy bun and her eyeliner is smeared. The hand offering me the bottle is holding a half-smoked cigarette. She smiles a tired smile, and I see that some of her teeth are missing. I accept the bottle from her with relief.
I am giddy with gratitude for this small act of mercy, but at the same time I feel a strange stab of surprise. I wonder what has shaken me about the unexpected assistance. It is not just that she answered my unspoken prayer, or the swiftness of her help, or her smiling reminder that most people–city mice or country mice– are nice and helpful. I search inside myself and recoil at what I find. I was surprised she helped me because of her appearance. In a single glance, I reduced her to a despicable trope: a poor, uneducated, racist, ignorant, white Midwestern lady. How ignorant. How despicable. How cruel. How arrogant! How many smiling faces have we waved away because they look like a group of people we have been raised to look down on? I vow that never again will I let my prejudiced eyes dismiss another human being or reduce them to a flat stereotype. You can’t fathom a person’s character from their form. You can’t tell just from looking what kind of person would stop on their way to stretch out a helping hand to a stranger.