While on the Long Island Railroad—the commuter train from Manhattan—to visit my daughter, I noticed a woman in the next row gasping for air. I mouthed to the man sitting opposite her “Is she okay?” and he nodded yes, though he didn’t appear to be acquainted with her. I could see them, because I was in a seat facing forward and their seats were facing backward.
The next time I looked up from playing Candy Crush she was crying. I recalled an article in The Times that I’d read a couple of months back in which the author questioned whether he should have approached a woman on the street who was crying. He had chosen not to and my memory is that he regretted that choice.
Regret is one of my bottom five favorite things. In a few minutes I would be switching trains, and the opportunity to help this stranger on a train would soon expire, unless I discontinued the debate with myself about pros and cons of offering her the ear of a stranger. Was it worth the risk that I might be annoying her?
Inaction was tempting but empathy, fear of regret, and a dollop of curiosity, forced me to get up and sit beside her.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I’ll be getting off the train soon, but I wonder whether the ear of a stranger would help.” I put a hand on her shoulder, while wiping away my own tear with my other hand. Though I’m not a crier, a stranger’s tears make my eyes water.
Spanish-accented words spilled out of her mouth. She was on her way to look for her brother, whose wife had abused him and he had been sleeping on the street. He had no cell phone and she wasn’t sure she could find him, but she was so worried about him and was heading to the town where she thought he might be. His wife had signed the papers for him to come to the US and now his sister—this teary woman beside me—was worried that the wife would keep her brother’s child from him and further abuse him physically and emotionally.
She told me she was really afraid for him and wanted him to go to the police. Better to be with the police, she said, than to be harmed.
On top of this, she explained (all in the span of approximately 3 minutes), that she was 35 and was a breast cancer survivor, but now they found cancer in her other breast. Despite all her woes, she had a good spirit about her.
The train pulled into the Jamaica station, where I had to get off to cross the platform for the train to Mineola. While hastily wielding my wheelie bag, I told her my name was Susan and asked for her email. She had no email and no pen to write down her phone number. “I have a good memory,” I said.
Just then an eager hand reached over the seat from behind her with pen and paper; the hand belonged to a woman who had obviously been eavesdropping the whole time.
After getting settled on the other train, I looked at the paper. It had her name and her phone number. And under that she had written, “Susan Please.”
I tried to phone her a couple of times, using Skype, but her voicemail said her mailbox was full.
When finally able to leave a message, I told her where she could go for legal aid, if she needed it.
Have you ever lent an ear to a stranger?
LOTS ABOUT MARRIAGE AND RELATIONSHIPS AND MORE IN MY NEW MEMOIR . . .
“A first-rate personal essayist, Susan Orlins delivers the goods time and again. Underneath her self-mocking voice, her abundant humor, her brio, there is the serious candor of a moralist who worries the problems that won’t go away.”
–PHILLIP LOPATE, author and editor of The Art of the Personal Essay
“Susan Orlins is America’s funniest neurotic since Woody Allen. Just be careful you don’t crack a rib reading Confessions of a Worrywart.”
–PATRICIA VOLK, author of Shocked and Stuffed