What happens when there’s a sick passenger

The simultaneous turn of heads compels you to pause your music. You were lost in your own world before, hypnotized by chaotic rhythms that get you through the morning commute. You look left when you see synchronized movement and notice, a couple of seats away, a man on the ground. He is still. You look twice, thinking he’s homeless or mentally ill; you’ve trained yourself to spare a glance—and only that—to people like them: those whose homes are in public spaces, bodies splayed across park benches, subway seats, or outside suit-and-tie offices. But this man is slumped against the door. He wears khaki pants, a red-and-white argyle sweater, and Sperrys. A briefcase lies beside him.

Headphones are removed, murmurs bubble from the mouths of those too far away to see, and when the door finally opens at the platform, you hear one person scream for help.

The MTA employees who are under-qualified to handle medical crisis arrive surprisingly quick. One man rushes forward. You’re surprised to see that he cares—in fact you’re thrilled to hear the panic in his voice; normally these employees wear their apathy like a uniform accessory. One passenger in the car comes to help when someone shouts Is anyone here a doctor? You had sat next to this doctor, remembered how at first glance she appeared meek and compliant, hands folded on her lap. You didn’t think much of her, but now she has transformed. Still, you wonder if she is truly the only doctor or if she is the only doctor to volunteer.

They don’t know his name, so they say, Hey.

Hey, can you hear me?

Hey, can you hear me?

Hey, can you hear me?

You wait to see what happens next. A newly arrived passenger thinking he’d caught the train in time comes in unbothered by this sight. He glances down as if to check for gum under his shoes, and makes his way to the other side. You want to ask if he’s blind. This train will not be moving.

The man is still still, save for the slow rise of his chest. A squad of MTA employees tells everyone to GET OUT, so you are pushed outwards by a flood of people as if they’re running from an infectious disease. Rather than moving down the platform, as requested, this crowd stays affixed to the car.

Attention: we are being held at this station due to a sick passenger. All Manhattan-bound A and C trains are out of service . . .

A singular complaint arises from the crowd: how am I going to get to work? This is ridiculous. An employee standing guard for the EMT fixes the complainer with a look, then points to the G train across the platform.

You stand so that you’re looking at the crowd that’s peering into the car. Mouths open. Hands to their hearts. Front row seats to a spectacle of suspense. Someone in the front starts yelling Jesus. Jesus. JESUS. Standing up to see better, you spot a woman, dressed business-like regardless of her religious zeal. She throws invisible prayers with her open hands and you can’t help but think that at least she, among the rubberneckers, is trying in her own way.

You peer behind to see if the EMTs have arrived. No such luck. Next to you, in a close-knit circle, camaraderie has formed among a group of ladies. You know they had been strangers before, since they sat far away from each other, in the same car as you. Scraps of The Accident, as it’s becoming known, fall from their lips. They can’t stop talking, but you’re not sure if you want them to.

He must have been sick and didn’t stay home.

The heat on the train was too much.

And where are the damn EMTs?

You feel like you want to chime in, be a part of something for once, but their circle is too tightly closed.

You are disconcerted by some spectators joking at the unconscious man’s expense. They find something, unbelievably, funny about their current circumstances. You look away.

You then feel a tap on your shoulder—a newcomer. He takes out one of his earphones, and asks, Did someone die? in the same manner one would ask, Is this the A Train? You answer what you know and he turns, plugging his ear back up. He seems to be looking for death, and not finding it, walks away.

There they are. The EMTs have finally arrived after you-don’t-know-how-long, but they walk with a slow swagger, even as the MTA employees gesture for them to quicken their pace.

You wonder how affected can one be by a stranger’s plight and will that define one’s morality? There are some who cry at another’s misfortune. Take this woman, for example, who is led away from the crowd by someone who might be her daughter, and you strain to hear words of consolation. Why, exactly, when everyone else is captivated by near death, is this woman the only person crying?

Get this man off the damn train so we can move on, one woman behind you grumbles.

The G Train has come, and you know you must get to work. You know that this will not fly as a good excuse for your lateness. Rush hour is not the time to show compassion.

The crowd sweeps to the opening doors, and you move with them, but also dig your heels against the ground to rile the impatient.

Wow, you guys are animals. It’s the same woman complaining before. You think she’s just bitter that she must wait for the next train. No matter. You are led from one state of misery to the next. In the car is a vagrant and she has skipped the perfunctory introduction, and screams, I’m hungry, over and over again. You don’t look at her.

As the train pulls away from the platform, you wonder if that still man will die.