Biff America: Subway story

I don’t know much, but I do know you can’t yell at children who are not your own. 

It was a beautiful Boston Sunday morning. I had spent the night before at a friend’s daughter’s wedding. Like any Irish reception, there was a fair amount of drinking and dancing. Being blessed with a strong liver, yet weak rhythm, I spent more time at the bar than on the dance floor. As a result, I was a little worse for wear.

Had I thought more clearly, I would have booked my flight later in the morning. But as it was, I was on a near-empty train, at 7 a.m. cruising though sleepy South Boston neighborhoods towards Logan airport. 

I was reading on my Kindle, enjoying the quiet, when a young man boarded with three children. No sooner had the train begun moving again, than his kids began running around the car like three over-caffeinated spawns of Satan. They chased each other from one end of the car to the other all the while screaming.

The other passengers and I looked towards the parent expecting him to quell his kids. He kept his face hidden in the newspaper.           

I knew it would probably do no good, but I only had one more stop before I was to get off, so I sidled over to him and sat down.

“Hey Bud” I said, “I don’t mean to ruin your day, but your children are out of control and have disturbed everyone on this train.”

I braced myself for his response. I did not want any trouble, but I decided to “take one for the team” — the team being the rest of the passengers. But, that said, if he got confrontational I was prepared to bid a hasty retreat. 

The man slowly put his paper down and looked up at me. For the first time I saw that he was young, almost too young to have three children, and he was crying.

He spoke with a Southern accent, seldom heard in Massachusetts.

First, he apologized and called his children over. Then, in a low voice he said that the night before his wife had gotten in a car accident. They had just moved to the city, his vehicle totaled, with no place to leave the kids, so he took them to the hospital. His wife would be out of surgery in a few hours and he then would know more. He said he planned to ask a neighbor he hardly knew to watch his kids so he could take the train back to the hospital.

In that three-minute explanation, my feelings went from anger to pity — judgment to empathy. Behavior that, only minutes before, I considered rude was now understandable. I could only imagine the stress and fear felt by the husband, alone and scared in a strange city. The guy kept his kids quiet for the rest of the ride. I wished he would let them go wild again to burn off their fear.

My apologies, but now I have a confession to make. That did not happen to me. I heard the story, years ago, while I was playing with a world-band radio. The signal faded before I could learn anything about the story or the teller. Since I heard the tale told in the first-person, I thought it better repeated that way as well.

 “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.”

If we knew that the person who just cut us off in traffic was distracted by worry over a sick spouse or child. Or if we could feel the stress of an overworked and under-slept civil servant, frontline worker or clerk, might we be more forgiving of their perceived shortcomings? Moreover, I often have to remind myself that some folks aren’t necessarily jerks, they are simply nuts. Suffering a mental condition they neither deserve nor desire. (My apologies if ‘nuts’ is an insensitive terms to describe folks who are nuts.)

Now yes, this is not my story, but similar events have happened to us all.

It is stories like the one above that remind me that, for better or worse, most everyone with whom we share this planet are simply doing the best they can. True, sometimes the best they can do stinks. 

Saint Augustine described resentment as “drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Or equally profound, my former roommate Psycho Dave, paraphrased the same sentiment as, “getting a mouthful of manure and blowing it in your enemy’s face.”

I wonder why they never made him a saint … 

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