The Platform at Connecticut

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
The recollection of an incident which occurred on a metro platform; detailing the circumstances of a particularly painful failure on the author's part, and the fallout which followed.

Submitted: December 19, 2013

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Submitted: December 19, 2013

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I’ve heard it said that at certain important moments, we encounter obstacles which force us to confront our deepest, most subconscious motivations. Yesterday, I learned something about myself which I didn’t like at all. I learned this thing because yesterday, for the first time in my life, I gave money to a beggar.

We had gone to the National Zoo, my friend Ruth and me. It was the sort of mundane, carefully-planned outing which friends sometimes arrange when they want to hang out but aren’t quite close enough to “just do something.” My mind was on a million things when I got out of bed that morning: packing lunch, catching the metro bus, worrying about the weather, forgetting my sunglasses.

In addition, I was playing that game which we all play and few of us will admit to: I was going over everything that had happened to me in the last four weeks, and trying to decide how to make it sound more interesting than it was. Because Ruth was sure to ask that fatal question, “What have you been doing recently?” Ruth, who had been interning at a prestigious organization all summer and making weekend trips to New York and Canada. The success of the entire excursion hinged on my ability to get through the awkward conversations which would undoubtedly accompany it.

To get to the Zoo, we took the metro to Connecticut Avenue and walked the three blocks to the Woodley Park entrance. The walk was relatively clean and safe; however, as we neared the Zoo we passed an old man sitting in a doorway, holding a beggar’s cup. Ruth stole a furtive glance but I was on the inside of the path and resolutely walked on. He made no noise, and I took no notice. The architecture in that part of town is fascinating, and we enjoyed commenting on the many columns and spires.

The Zoo itself was hot, sticky, and tiring. What animals could be indoors, were indoors. The rest were lying like the dead in ponds, bushes, and undergrowth. Ruth, being from Minnesota, had never been to the National Zoo. I’d spent a week talking up our giant pandas, our lions, and the orangutans’ hi-wire, only to have the traitorous sauna which is summertime D.C. betray me.

Fortunately, my pride (ego) never leaves me in a moment of crisis. Thus I spent a solid four hours pretending that each animal we saw was “the most active and interesting I’ve ever seen it!” and Ruth spent a solid four hours politely pretending to be awed and impressed by heat-struck lemurs. Around 1:30pm we decided to cut our losses and depart, after she mercifully suggested a stop for froyo.

The walk back to Connecticut Avenue seemed an eternity. We passed the doorway where the old beggar had been sitting. It was empty. A little further down the street, almost at the station, another beggar had taken up residence on a bench; this time, a middle-aged man dressed in shabby clothing. Again, we walked past without taking any notice of him.

The metro station was absolutely packed with people. For whatever reason, every resident of Northwest D.C. had elected to take the southbound Red Line from Connecticut at the unusual hour of 2:15pm. Ruth and I, exhausted from all the walking and just wanting to sit down, stood next to a cement column and waited in silence for the next train to Glenmont.

And then, the man appeared; an African-American man, wearing a pair of dress pants and a meticulous button-down shirt. He popped out of nowhere and began muttering at us. I say muttering, because that is the exact word which went through my head at the time. A train was departing from the other platform, and I couldn’t hear much of what he was saying. It was clear from his demeanor, however, that he was asking us for money. On a platform full of impatient commuters, after I’d spent the last four hours slogging across kingdom come in the searing heat of August, when all I wanted to do was go home – this man was asking us for something.

I finally distinguished one question he was asking amidst a deluge of words: “Would you help a homeless person?” This was followed by something about being “In between right now” and then “…because I’m black, some people say…” and finally “You never know.” Ruth, who has partial hearing loss, was standing beside me looking confused and slightly nervous. As we stood on the platform, a sudden wave of the deepest emotion I’ve felt in months broke over me.

I looked at the man, and I wanted him gone.

I wanted him to leave. I wanted him to turn around and walk away from us right now. The existence of This Person in front of me was so absolutely repulsive that for a single instant I might almost have contemplated throwing him under a train. He was saying things – vaguely sad, uncertain things which made my stomach turn for no reason at all. And yet words seemed to have failed me; I could not put my harsh feeling into speech of any kind.

Instead, I pulled out my wallet.

I was caring about $27 in cash at the time. Holding it so that the money was concealed, I plucked two $1 bills from my wallet, thrust it towards him and finally managed to speak. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was that I said. All I know was that I ended it with the lie “I’m sorry, that’s all I’ve got.” Ruth quickly followed suit, offering two dollars as well (which, to my chagrin and her credit, really was all she had left). The man, having got what he wanted, disappeared so instantaneously it was as if he’d disapparated. The next moment our train arrived, and we boarded without a word.

The outing ended as well as could be expected. Ruth and I had our froyo, laughed over the hopelessness of the heat, and parted ways amicably. Not a word was ever spoken about that man on the platform between us. Maybe she didn’t think of it. Maybe she assumed it was normal for our city. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. But as I sat in the metro bus later on by myself, stuck in the traffic of Rt-66 during rush hour, the whole ordeal began replaying before my eyes.

What had happened? I saw the man approach. I saw his lips moving, moving with no sound. And then the anger. The horrible, consuming hatred rose inexplicably from the depths of my stomach.

It terrified me.

God’s truth, I said a prayer right then and there. Sitting next to a prim businesswoman and with the eyes of the entire Mormon Tabernacle choir staring down at me from an advertisement poster, I mentally recited the Hail Mary. Because something had gone horribly wrong on that platform. That couldn’t have been me.

It wasn’t the man. After hours of painful reflection, I’m sure it wasn’t the man. Not his skin or his clothes or his hair or his posture. It was simply the fact that he was There. In my frustrated, heat-exhausted state, a human being had forced his way into my life and I (subconscious or not) had willed his absence. No regard for his personhood – only for my own fleeting discomfort.

I recalled with shame the two homeless men I had ignored earlier that day. They truly had been desperate. The man on the platform was well-dressed and clean-shaven. How could I give him money but so blatantly disregard those others? I had given him the money to shut him up, plain and simple. Those others had been quiet and unobtrusive, and so received nothing from me.

What a fantastic motive for giving.

I’m not entirely settled yet. To be frank, I don’t know if I ever will be. Yesterday I learned that I simply did not care about the dignity of another person enough to overcome my own trivial inconvenience. It hurt me because I like to think that I do care. I am a Christian. I am a student. I do service work and all sorts of ministries and I always try to take the attitude that those I serve are just as valuable as me, and not inferior for any reason. But yesterday I was caught in a moment of honesty and I flunked the charity test hard.

Perhaps it was a valuable lesson. Or perhaps I’ve been too hard on myself. It was after all very hot that day. But the fact remains that Ruth gave all the money she had left because she thought we were doing a good deed, and I gave a tiny fraction of mine to stifle an annoyance. I paid two dollars then, and have been paying in shame all morning. But I can’t shake the feeling that the only thing I ought to have paid was better attention to my motivations.

I won’t be taking the metro again for a while, what with the semester starting up again soon. But I already know what will happen when I do. I’ll go out armed with a whole stack of dollars, and hand several to each homeless person I pass. It won’t make me feel any better. It’ll probably make me feel worse. But I’m going to do it anyway because I just… can’t… not. Not after what happened yesterday. Not after the platform at Connecticut.

Guess I’d better say another prayer before I go.


© Copyright 2019 Lionel Wyatt. All rights reserved.

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