It’s always while I’m riding the EL that I end up reflecting on the human condition. I think there’s something about Philadelphians that makes them seem so much more real than DC folks. They just don’t have this invisible barrier that so many DCers put up, whether out of dislike for humans they don’t know or just plain egocentrism. Philadelphians are different; they look you in the eye (albeit defiantly sometimes), they interact with you (whether for better or for worse), they speak loudly of their personal lives and sometimes invite you to join their conversations (usually when opinions differ and they need a third party to weigh in, which can be quite comical).
I suppose this is why I’m drawn to them and why they inspire thoughts deeper than those I get while riding the Metro. DCers are simply impenetrable.
And so on this particular occasion, as I made my way to catch a train back to DC, a young man boarded my car with a piece of cardboard upon which was written a plea for help. What struck me about this man was the fact that he looked to be at least two decades older than when I last saw him—so much so that I didn’t recognize him until he got off and shuffled on to the next car. His beard was long, dirty, tangled; his hands were swollen and dark with grime; his clothes were heavily worn and torn. He painted the exact picture that one would have of a homeless man: overgrown hair, dirty and torn clothes, grimy hands. I thought, “Man, he’s had it rough.” And then, almost as a reflex, I thought, “This could be a very elaborate scam.”
And this is when I realized that the people I thought were so unabashedly open had suddenly raised their barriers. Conversations stopped and everyone retreated into the comfort of their personal space. I saw some heads turned to impossible angles, presumably to avoid making eye contact. “It must be hard,” I thought, “to stand there in silence while everyone actively ignores you.” How low does his heart sink every time this happens? Or had he become so accustomed to it that it didn’t really feel like anything anymore?
Con artists are so common and we are so easily duped that we’ve become suspicious of our fellow humans and reluctant to help those in need. I wish I had it in my heart to give without questioning and to help unconditionally but this fear of being fooled stops me every time. I don’t want to help the liars, the undeserving, the wrong people. I don’t want to be fooled so I won’t take a chance. And while you could argue that this is perfectly reasonable, I find it most unfortunate. I don’t want to be this jaded. I think it’s bad for the soul.