When a baby sea turtle hatches from its egg – buried in the sand – it will climb its way to the surface and immediately head toward the water. If something should block its path, it will find a way around it. It must. Or it will die. The turtle has only one goal in this world, and that is to make it to the ocean. It knows to do this purely from its instincts. All of the decisions that it makes to reach this end are based on this drive, which has been given to it by genetics over millions of years. This is one of the ways that an animal will make decisions.
As an animal grows older, it will accumulate experiences and store them in its brain as memories. When it comes time to make decisions, this more experienced animal has the ability of accessing these memories to use in their decision-making. Sometimes the animal will do this consciously, like when you decide to stop picking your nose after remembering that you just wiped down the toilet seat at the gas station restroom and didn’t wash your hands. And sometimes, this is an act of our unconscious mind, like when you use the highest pitches of your voice to scream, “Aaahhh” when you happen to look down and see a spider in your lap. Regardless, this is another way that an animal will make decisions, and it is the type that I would like to discuss today.
Every now and then we will have an experience that leaves an impregnable impression on our long-term memory. These moments are special not only because we can return to them throughout our lives, but because they change us. They provide us with a greater basis for making decisions, and for better or worse, this allows us to grow. It is at these times that we truly build our character.
What does it take for an experience to have a lasting impression on our minds? What sorts of experiences make the cut, and which fall short? I haven’t quite ironed out the answers to these questions yet, but I do think I can give an example of one.
Recently, I was walking down the stairs to my local subway stop when I saw a homeless man asking for money. This isn’t too out of the ordinary, and I wouldn’t have taken much note of it had it not been for his condition. It was sad and astounding and intriguing all at the same time. It seemed he must have been breaking some laws of nature by still being alive.
He only had one shoe on, which made sense after seeing how abnormally swollen one of his feet was. I only knew of one shoe in the world that might fit him and Ronald McDonald was already wearing it. He was sporting gray sweatpants with an obvious pee stain on the front and caked in shit on the back. When I say “caked in”, I mean that it was not just a stain, i.e. a permanent discoloration. It had texture to it, which makes me believe that it squished through the fibers of the cotton and solidified as a sort of paste. I knew this was shit and not just mud because flies were literally swarming around him. His hair was short with the exception of a random dreadlock coming out of the side of his head. It reminded me of an asymmetrical version of the blue, opera singing woman from The Fifth Element. I never imagined a living thing could smell this way.
So, I was pretty relieved when I saw him approach the woman in front of me. Next time, I would help him out, I thought. For now, they were doing business, and I didn’t need to interrupt them. I quickly shuffled past them, swiped my card, and spun through the turnstiles to safety. I must make a note here, that the turnstiles at this stop are not the horizontal ones you find at most stations. They are the vertically spinning full body ones, more akin to a small revolving door.
I felt terrible for this man, of course, but this is NYC. These are the sorts of things that you encounter on a daily basis, and the unfortunate reality is that they exist and we can’t always do something about it. I realize now that I sound like a defeatist, and I don’t like that. But it’s true. Besides, this man didn’t need a dollar or a subway ride. He needed a hospital or a time machine.
The woman was dressed professionally. She was probably on her way to work, at some place important enough to require a dress code. I heard her apologize for not being able to help him as she rummaged through her bag for her MetroCard. She should have had it out and ready. This just gave him all the more time to haggle her. Which was really her fault, as she should have had it out and ready. What if there was a bunch of people waiting to swipe? Now, that would just be inconsiderate. I was sort of rooting for him now. Com’n, lady, just give him a buck or two.
The train began to approach and I heard her tell him one more time that she was sorry, she couldn’t help him. I felt bad for this man, but I understood.
The train pulled into the station. She found her MetroCard, swiped it, and you wouldn’t believe what happened next.
The man, with a quick, elegant, and gentle motion – like a father ushering his son through a busy crowd – pushed his way into the turnstile with the woman! It was like some type of magic or gymnastics trick. Just when she thought she had lost the guy, he was squeezed right up behind her, pee-stained sweatpants to Barneys skirt. If I hadn’t known better and he wasn’t in such appalling condition, it could appear that they were just some frivolous couple flipping the bird to The Man. But I did know better, and I thought she was going to burst into tears. Whether this was from sheer terror or disgust, I couldn’t quite say. I tried to catch some glimpse of this man’s expression, but his face was hidden, nuzzled too snug with the woman’s head. I wondered if he had gotten a boner.
Once through, without any acknowledgement of the affair that they just had, the man hobbled his way through a door a couple of cars down. She at least deserved a, “Thank you” I felt. “It was a pleasure sharing a metro fare with you!” or “Thanks for the ride!” would have been even more appropriate.
Through it all, she was a fairly good sport. She didn’t scream bloody murder or turn around and curse him out afterward, or anything like that. Although obviously disturbed, she seemed to have accepted her place in this situation: She had made the decision to not help this man out. This man made the decision to help himself out. This meant that, for a brief moment, they would be in intimate physical contact. This was the risk she didn’t realize she was taking.
As the doors to the train closed and we began to pull away, I couldn’t help but think that this would be an experience forever etched into this young girl’s memory. How could she ever again encounter a homeless man in the subway station, refuse to give him money, and not think that he might slide right in beside her anyways? No, I’d be willing to bet that from now on, she will make room in her budget for situations such as this.
And what about the homeless man? How much easier that must have been than to sit around all morning waiting until his pennies added up. I’d also be willing to bet that from now on, this will be his strategy of choice for situations such as this.
And for me? Hell, I’m with the woman. He won my money.