Hitchhiking on Someone Else’s Smile

I was on the subway coming home from my workplace downtown. A man changed seats mid-ride and sat unusually close to another passenger. He leaned over too far into a man’s personal space and began looking at the other’s laptop screen. My anxiety rose. We all know not to do this, don’t we? I got up and moved seats, far away.

I’m not proud of this.

In a minute or so, the man came and sat directly in front of me, facing me, though a bit of a distance away. I saw right away that he was mentally disabled. And alone.

He noticed a pink balloon on the floor that a little girl had dropped. He picked it up like it was a rare treasure. He touched it, stretched it, smushed it, smiling and with rapt attention. The little girl clung to her father, aware in spite of her young age that the man was not “normal.” The father rather glared.

I noted that a touch of anxiety remained for me. I wasn’t sure how to react if the man approached me.

I’m not proud of this.

A woman across the aisle from me was watching him too. She began smiling, rather broadly, at the picture of this young man in his neat red plaid shirt, delighting in the balloon, all alone on the train.

And all of a sudden I realized I could hitchhike on her smile. I could jump right on.

In fact I had.

Her comfort and enjoyment of the man were all I needed to lose that anxiety, to even begin to wonder about the man’s life, to empathize, to ache over what it must be like to ride the subway and to have people (like me) move away from you when all you are trying to do is to get from point A to point B like everybody else, to express curiosity, and — imagine! — to interact, even, with a few fellow passengers.