I love the metro train. The train loves me back. Worn out carpets with chewing gum polka dots. The Saturday morning train ride is the best. It’s nice and quiet; mostly tourists getting a jump on the National Mall, or the poor guy who can’t believe his manager scheduled him on the weekend. They are traveling live art installations; graffiti played out in between speeding walls. On the outskirts of town trains are empty enough that I can let my sons stand holding the poles in the aisle, as long as they don’t spin around. I used to let them spin around on the poles (something I probably wouldn’t let them do if they were girls…yeah, I know), but now they’re growing faster than my bank account. They need to know that the train is a serious place, where they are no longer the cute little toddlers everyone will love. They will begin to resemble the pre-pubescent troublemakers most of these people have been conditioned to be wary of. People will start clutching their purse and their Ipad. The train, a haven for pseudo predators wanting cheap feels. The train is a mobile sanctuary for overzealous proselytizers. The train is a traveling show of light and brevity, a chance to borrow someone else’s smile, as they push a stroller or play with their commemorative glove from the Nat’s game. This is where your head needs to be on a swivel. Catch the danger. Absorb the sunlight.
The boys decided to play new games and read new books they had just got, so we sat in mid way between doors in one of the blue seats instead of near the poles. They buried their faces in their books as we went from one station to the next. I’m usually a reader or a people watcher on the train, but today I’m busy multi-tasking on my phone. Two stops into our journey I hear a familiar voice from 10 rows behind me.
“Can you help me sir?”
These words were cradled in the worst slurping lisp you’d ever want to hear. I remember this kid. Grown mans deformed body. Teetering in an adult world he wasn’t prepared for.
“Can you help me sir?”
This time he was closer. He had started from the other end of the car and was working his way down. He might have hopped on a few stops ago, and was switching cars on each stop. This time his voice triggered the memories from my days as the idealist newbie on the job. Ignoring the warnings of other teachers and administrators who told me to keep my distance. They told me to be helpful, and nice, but not too friendly with this one because he doesn’t know how to act. This isn’t the first time my idealism stirred with my hard headedness got me mixed into some problems.
Just as my colleagues had told me, this boy became completely sexually inappropriate with me. He took my kindness as a sexual come on, because that’s the way kindness had always been shared with him. Kind gestures were always a means to a perverted end. His early brushes with kind words and complements where just part of a sexual transaction, the worst kind of sexual transaction if you asked his Born Again mom.
There was the time where he answered the seemingly innocuous class question “what is your favorite food” by looking dead at me and saying “hot dogs and bananas,” making the entire class laugh, and me squirm in my grown man chair. There were the times he told his classmates he was in love with me, the kind of classmates in the kind of school where this story had caramel and sprinkles, embellished with a cherry on top before the end of first period. Then there was the deal breaker, when he beat me back to classroom after lunch, and in front of the entire class took a whiff of my coat to inhale my smell, like a fat kid in a bakery. It freaked out everyone, and made me realized I couldn’t be his special teacher friend the way I wanted to be.
I felt real empathy for him. All of the students at this school were “special needs”, but most of them could hide it, for at least a few moments. Until they were forced to have to speak up or interact with “normal people”, or when their particular neurotic fuse was lit. But this kid couldn’t hide. Because of his facial deformities, he was special before he could say “hi”. His world was nothing like any world I would ever know, and I still to this day (sexual inappropriateness and all) feel a sense of sorrow for him that I don’t want to feel for anyone.
“Can I get some help sir?”
The voice hangs directly over me, getting ready to speed by with his request to the next aisle.
“Wzup Man!” I exclaimed. He stopped, dumbfounded, trying to remember where he knew me. We’ve bumped into each other before. Usually on Georgia Ave, usually with his clothes in various levels of disrepair. He obviously doesn’t remember all of our interactions, because he treats this one like our first one since school. He doesn’t remember the sandwich I bought him from Sankofa. He doesn’t recall the other time I offered to walk with him to Martha’s Table. “Hi,” he said tentatively. He knew he recognized me, but it took him at least 10 seconds before he realized who I was. Then he was struck with memories of our interactions from his own hazy view of events.
“You need something to eat?” I said, “follow us, we get off in a few stops, I’ll buy you a sandwich”. “I’m okay”, he said, “I see you got your kids, I don’t want to take food out of their mouths”. “I’m not going to see a former student of mine begging on the subway and not help bro. Have a seat, we’ll get off soon,” I said. I’m thinking I’m helping him as well as the tourist and weekend shifters from having to deal with the visual and emotional shock of dealing with his pleas.
“So what’s going on?” I ask. “My mom kicked me out again” he replied. Same story. Different day. I’ve heard it in these exact words at least 3 times. “You had company over the house again?” I said. He smiled, and hung his head a little. “I’m grown! Why can’t my mother let me have company?” It’s not that she doesn’t want him to have company. It’s that him and his company do grown people stuff. And it’s not that she doesn’t want her son doing grown people stuff, it’s that she wants grandchildren, and her son to go to heaven, and the men he supposedly brings home won’t make either of those things happen. “Dude, this is the same story as last time. You gotta follow her rules while you’re in her house! Are you still in contact with your social worker?” I ask. “No. Why?” he said. “You qualify for a bunch of government help like job placement and housing. You should look into it”. The brother has no focus, and no marketable skills to think off. Between his physical and mental handicaps, and the social beating he’s received his whole life, he seems oddly suited for begging on the train. He doesn’t look like an able bodied worker who’s just being lazy. He doesn’t need a “raising money for my basketball team” story to sell. But somewhere in there, amongst the half-truths he tells, is a bright mind willing to do what he must to survive. “My social worker and I…” he began. Wait a minute. I’ve heard this story too. I finished it for him “…got into a fight”. He smiled sheepishly again.
“When was the last time you were home?”
“How is this ‘asking for money on the train’ thing working for you?”
“I’ll tell you when we get off”.
Fair enough. We continue to talk. I tell him about his old teachers and administrators I keep up with. He listens and laughs, while stealing glimpses of my sons and I longingly. He used to tell me he loved that I was an involved dad. That his problems stem from the fact that his father wasn’t there. How do you tell someone whose broken, that they’re leaning on a crutch? I realized quickly that if I was going to buy him a sandwich, I needed to do it far away from where we were going. I didn’t need his sexual inappropriateness anywhere near my sons, but wasn’t going to just let him walk away without helping.
L’Enfant Plaza station happened soon enough. This is when he tells me on the escalator, “I make almost $200 a day on the train”.
“How often do you do this?”
“Oh, I thought you really needed help”.
“No, I’m okay. I’m surprised you said something to me. You used to give me such a hard time at school.”
“That is not hardly the way it went down. I was your biggest ally at that school, you ruined that”.
“What are you talking about?… oh yeah”.
“But, you don’t REALLY need my help?”
“No, I’m aight. Thanks, but use your money to feed your kids. But maybe you could take me under your wing. I could give you money.”
We had talked a moment too long. I had reached out my hand to far. Again.
“Stay up bro.”
I gave him a pound. He got off on the next stop.
I’m reminded of what one of my mentors told me in college when I told him I wanted to teach. “You can’t save them all, and you’ll drive yourself crazy if you try”. I always, always hated that statement. I hate it even more now, that it’s so obviously true. Lessons I’ll take with me to the next stop.