It seems like a straight-forward thing, fear. Fear of spiders. Fear of flying. Fear of heights. We categorize them and stick labels on them. Xenophobia. Claustrophobia. Name a thing and there’s a fear of it.
Fear is a lot more cunning than that. We’re not as bright as we think we are, with our things and our names of them.
There’s the fear that can cloak itself in confusion, fear that can peddle itself as anger, fear that can contort itself into jealousy, fear that can mount into acrid resentment.
And there’s the fear that can disguise itself as condescension.
New Yorkers are afraid of homeless people. If you asked them, they wouldn’t be able to identify it as fear. And yet they avert their eyes, pull their coats in tighter, and leave empty seats next to the homeless man on the Subway– and everyone can immediately identify the scruffy-looking man with the backpack mumbling to himself just a little too loudly.
I get on the uptown 2 train, heading towards the temple at Lincoln Center and there is an entire empty bench. Sure enough, opposite the empty bench is a homeless man. I sit directly across from him and look him in the eye. I have my headphones in but notice that he is saying something to me. I stop to take out a single earbud.
This simple act alone never happens. People pretend not to notice or turn their music up louder to avoid the possibility of any unpleasantness. No one ever even considers listening.
“I said ‘Nice hoodie.’ I like it.” He gives me two thumbs up.
I grin. “Thanks, man. I like it too.”
Unhurriedly, I put the earbud back in, watching the man but not staring. He calls out to the man that sat down next to me. The man to my right makes the slightest movement of silent condescension.
And the show begins.
Homeless man begins ranting about how he can’t get a state ID. He has lived here for 55 years. He has a diploma. He has a birth certificate. He has his mother’s phone number. And he can’t get a state ID. He feels like an alien.
(And why wouldn’t he?)
At this point, more people on the train begin to pointedly look away with uncomfortable silence. It’s the slightest shift that you might not notice if you didn’t have the homeless spectacle to identify it, but just in the natural course of roving eyes, they would have to occasionally rest in the spot where the homeless man is sitting. But none do.
That almost impercetible shift is enough to set him off further. He starts cranking up the volume. He starts laughing manically, showing off the gaps in his teeth.
“Ha HAA! Ha HAA! You know what I’m sayin?”
I’m still watching him, still with my headphones in. He hasn’t glanced in my direction since complimenting my hoodie. That’s something I never noticed before; everyone is afraid of making eye contact with the homeless man, but even the homeless man is afraid of making eye contact with anyone who isn’t afraid of him.
I’m not afraid. I want to weep. What does it take to bring a man to that point? How much do you have to go through to start riling up strangers on the Subway? People are so scared of the homeless because they don’t understand why they behave the way they do. The answer isn’t complicated: pain. If there’s anything we can all understand, isn’t it pain? Some people may not have enjoyed a steady source of unconditional love in their lives, some people may not have grown up in a city, some people may not have experienced a great success or an overwhelming failure.
But if there is one thing we have all experienced, it is pain.
I know what it is like to feel invisible. I know what it is like to be screaming and to be still unheard. Yes, I know what it’s like to feel like an alien. Yes, I know what you’re saying.
I don’t say any of this out loud. The man is now punching the silver pole in front of him, and the woman to his left moves away in a frightened huff.
“YEAH! MOVE, BITCH! GET OUT OF HERE!”
That line really endears him to his fellow passengers.
He is exactly like a small child saying, “I hate you!” to his parents. There is nothing scary about it. As children we react to a pain we can’t quite identify, and lash out in the only ways we know how, trying to get under the skin of our parents, incite a reaction, something, anything to prove to ourselves that we aren’t helpless, that we do actually somehow exist. And most people spend the rest of their lives doing the same thing.
“42nd St – Times Square.”
It’s my stop. I’ve got to transfer to the 1 train. I get up and lean over the homeless man, removing my earbuds.
“I hope you get your ID.”
“What?” He didn’t notice me at first. He had no idea I was listening.
“I hope you get your ID,” I repeat.
His face lights up like a kid on Christmas, showing off that winning toothy grin. He sticks out a hand and I shake it. I don’t look back but I think he’s still grinning as I step off the train.
I still feel like weeping. Instead I say a quick prayer for the guy on the train that is going crazy without being acknowledged as a human being.
Just let tonight not suck for him.