BY PHILLYGRRL This past Wednesday, as I rushed from the subway to class, I had nearly forgotten what day it was. But the security guard at Temple reminded me. “Ahem, young lady! Young lady!” I stop in my tracks. “Young lady, today is a very special day for me. Do you know what day it is?” I try not to look at my watch and frantically think. Birthday? Anniversary? I know almost nothing of this man. All I know is that he makes it a point to get familiar with each student. That by the end of the second week of classes, he can tell who belongs and who doesn’t. He knows the nervous first-years and the job-hunting third years. He is always surrounded by a coterie of students who keep him well-informed of their lives. Then I remember. Today is Veterans Day. He smiles and nods when I tell him.
“Where did you serve,” I ask him.
“Vietnam. One year. I saw a lot.”
I nod somberly and take a discrete peek at my watch. I want to stay and talk with him. There isn’t time. Trying to close the conversation, I suggest “You should write a book.”
“I should write a book,” he says, chuckling. “I could write a book. I know a lot of humorous stories.” I wonder at that. Humor isn’t the first thing I think of when I hear the word “war.” But instead of asking him to elaborate, I make my excuses and walk away.
That night, on the subway, my classmates are teasing me. They claim I have a “SEPTA effect,” that when I’m around, strange things happen. Apparently one night, early in the semester, as one student mentioned to the other that I write about SEPTA, there was a dramatic arrest in the subway where armed cops were waiting at the City Hall station to take in a passenger in their car. Ever since then, whenever a homeless woman starts smashing her head against a seat or rowdy little boys jump turnstiles, they turn to me and say “it’s because you’re here.”
This particular ride, we’re clustered around the doors to the car, headed north when we realize we’re next to an older black man in camouflage who is talking about war. For some reason, whenever we take the subway together, we don’t sit down, even if there is an empty seat. We huddle next to the doors. In this case, we’re making a U-shape and the man talking to himself and reeking of alcohol is seated in the middle. He talks about Desert Storm and death. About watching his fellow soldiers get shot. He is trying to say something. To us? To the entire car? Who knows? “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?” he announces. We ignore him. All of us, except one. She talks to him in a calm voice, engages him in conversation. The rest of us continue talking, trying to drown out his words. We’re tired, we really can’t be bothered right now. Our classmate listens to him quietly, she looks him in the eyes. When she leaves, she tells him goodbye.
The next night, on the same ride back, we debate the episode. Who did the “right” thing? Our friend, the lone dissenter, says “affirming one’s humanity” and recognizing someone despite their flaws as a human being is important. She’s worked with veterans on Skid Row. She isn’t naïve, she’s lives in Philadelphia a long time. She says we were rude by talking around him and ignoring him. Others say he interrupted a private conversation and had no right to demand recognition and that despite his problems, tackling the larger societal issues at hand is of more beneficial than acknowledging an obviously troubled individual. Someone brings up the hammer episode. We talk about gut instincts and the dangers of being wrong. There is no consensus. The car pulls up at the platform. We leave.