Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When Kindness Just Wasn't Worth It

Like most people, I try whenever possible to show kindness to my fellow homo sapiens. On most occasions, these benevolent actions don't require much effort or sacrifice on my part - holding a door open for the person behind me who's carrying two grocery bags, adding an extra dollar to a taxi driver's tip, humoring a friend by pretending to care about the latest developments on the reality show he or she has been diligently following. Sometimes I will even go above and beyond the call of duty by being kind when common social etiquette doesn't demand that I do so, although propriety forces me to refrain from detailing such incidents here.

Yet even I have my limits. The story you are about to read - which occurred yesterday, on Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - details one of them.

It happened on the Long Island Railroad. I was heading to Jamaica (a neighborhood in Queens) for an appointment with a professor at St. John's University, where I planned on having a conversation about the graduate program in history offered there. As I mentally reviewed the subjects I intended to discuss, a raspy, elderly voice cut into my thoughts.

"Would it be okay with you if I sit here?"

As soon as I looked up, the appearance of the woman who had asked that question was my first sign that there was something not quite right, either with her or with the situation in which I was about to find myself. She had a round face with a sallow complexion, her skin covered in brown blotches and tiny purple sores that made the hypochondriac in me wince. Her hair was long, stringy, and gray, but its tendency to be clumped together in greasy knots caused small patches of her scalp to be visible, giving the appearance of extremely erratic baldness. The fact that she hadn't showered in quite some time was, in more ways than one, extremely obvious - this, combined with her aforementioned blemishes, made her age hard to determine, although I suspected she fell somewhere in the fifty-to-sixty range. Then there was her figure - rotund to the point where it fell just shy of morbid obesity (although, given the other aspects of her appearance, her weight barely warranted attention) and clad in a sweatsuit so covered in dirt, grime, and small tears that it became clear she had spent several consecutive days wearing it.

To top it all off, the question she asked was disturbing in its absurdity: I had placed myself next to the window on a three-seat row, while the seat the woman requested was not only next to the aisle, but in the row across from and facing my own. In short, from a purely territorial standpoint, I was in no position to either grant or deny her the seat she desired. Her question was so transparently unnecessary that it drew attention to itself, a fact that wasn't helped by her overall aura of instability.

Still, I didn't really have much of a choice. It wasn't my seat to bequeath or refuse, and besides, she had done nothing to warrant being insulted by being told I didn't want to be in proximity of her.

"Of course you can sit here," I said, trying my best to sound nonchalant. With a grunt and a brief appreciative nod, the woman placed her ample posterior on the leather cushion while I began to run through excuses for leaving.

What is wrong with you? The angry question burst into my head with the force of a reprimand. Heaven knows this woman has probably suffered enough in her life. So what if you're a little uncomfortable sitting near her? It's not like you're actually next to her, and besides, the train ride is only twenty minutes. Clearly she would notice if you just up and left, and that would hurt her feelings. She hasn't wronged you in any way, so what right do you have to hurt her feelings simply because you don't want to be uncomfortable for twenty minutes?

The matter thus resolved, I averted my gaze from the woman and began, with more determination than I wished to admit to myself, to fix my stare out the window. Within seconds, the woman's actions made this impossible.

The sound of thick saliva smacking against raw flesh drew my gaze toward her. She had opened her mouth, revealing two front teeth, a handful of molars - and nothing else. The half dozen teeth she had were surrounded by a field of black, lumpy gum tissue, which was itself oozing blood in quantities sufficient to pool on the bottom of her mouth, where her tongue would absent-mindedly lap them up (thankfully, none of the blood was being drooled out). To make matters worse, she had produced a handheld mirror and a wad of gauze, and as she gazed intently into the former, proceeded to use the latter to dab away at spots of blood that had begun to stain her incisors.

All of this I could have handled. Disgusting though it was, nauseating as it was rapidly becoming, I nevertheless strongly believe, from the bottom of my heart, that had these been the old woman's sole offenses, I would have suppressed the urges of my hypochondriacal mind and weak stomach and endured her presence for the remainder of the trip. But while I don't know where my threshold is, I do know that what the woman began to do after a few seconds of dabbing away at her two front teeth pushed me past it.

She started laughing.

At that moment I realized three things:

1) That the sight of this old lady, laughing hysterically as she gazed into a reflection of her decaying mouth and vainly tried to dry up the patches of blood staining her front teeth, was a sight so legendary in its grotesqueness that I would have to share it with my blog readers.

2) That abruptly leaving would almost certainly hurt her feelings, given that she'd already expressed an awareness of the possibility that someone might not want to sit near her.

3) That I still had to get the hell out of there.

I don't remember what excuse I mumbled as I got up and left, although I'd like to think it was a believable one. In retrospect, I remain somewhat ashamed of my behavior. Before she had become the collection of revolting attributes that took in my mind the form of a monster, causing me to decide that I was compelled to flee, she had been... a human being. She had been a little girl once, and a young woman as well; there had been a point where more of her life was ahead of her then behind her, and when she had known emotions like happiness and hope. Maybe she had always been homeless, and maybe she had always been insane, and maybe her body had always been falling apart, but probably not; most likely, there had been a period, perhaps of considerable length, when she was just a normal human being, one with whom I might have shared a pleasant chat on that train instead of a horrifying ordeal. Who knows... she might have even been beautiful once.

The problem was that - for me, at that moment - she was more than I could endure. That is why, in more ways than one, I walked away.

1 comment:

regina said...

Poignant though your ending note is--and it is poignant and moving and depressing--I must disagree with one thing. There is nothing wrong or hypochondraical about doing what you did, or even doing it had she not laughed. Clearly she was ill, and maybe mentally imbalanced too, but more importantly, she was clearly ill--and not dealing with that illness in a hygienic, sterilized manner. It's possible she couldn't help that and was being as hygienic as she could manage. But it's also possible she was contagious with something. You had every right to decide "No anthrax for me today, please." I mean, this is how zombie apocalypse movies start.