The young man was counting twenty dollar bills in his hands when he moved forward and stumbled and fell on the subway tracks. It was right in front of me. I looked urgently at the digital sign above. It said a train was arriving in one minute. One minute.
A thousand images flashed before my eyes of people caught on cell phone cameras in moments of absolute mortal danger. You always wonder what you would do. What you would do if something like that happened in front of you.
And there it was. An opportunity to do something. Or nothing.
And then I realized I had jumped down onto the tracks, just like they tell you not to do. The same sign scrolling, “If you drop something on the track, leave it.” But I was dragging him up as best I could and heaving him back onto the platform. Thankfully, another man reached down and pulled him the last few inches to safety.
Looking down, I saw his twenty dollar bills scattered on the rails and I gathered them up and put them in his hand. I don’t know why I did that.
As I sat him up and talked to him, I could feel the air moving forcefully over me. It was the approaching train. The sign was flashing zero minutes to arrival of the next train. The train roared past, its driver, its passengers unaware of how the evening could have unfolded. The Lexington subway station closed because of an incident. People trying to capture video on their phones for the evening news. A young man died on the tracks tonight. Police do not know if it was an accident or a suicide. They are appealing for witnesses.
But he was alive.
I looked at the people around me and saw something I wasn’t expecting. The eyes of strangers set in judgment. Set in their negative judgment for the young man with long hair and dirty fingernails who had staggered onto the track.
There was no smell of alcohol but his eyes were distant, like they had been separated from the violence of the present. And the people judged him.
I felt awkward when he thanked me for saving his life. It wasn’t like the images on TV when you wonder what it would feel like to do something like that. I just felt sad. I was sad for the way we judge people for being down and out. And how we admire those who have more than us.
I went home on the subway, searching for the exhilaration of saving someone who no one cared about. That sign was still scrolling in my mind. If you drop something on the track, leave it.
Unless you want to save a life.