In times of uncertainty and divisiveness, it helps to be mindful of the people around you and to recognize that we’re all in this together.
Patriot’s Day weekend, 2007, I was at an Omega Institute class in mid-town Manhattan with Zen teacher Sharon Salzberg. The topic was mindfulness. At the end of the class, Sharon asked us to look around the room and imagine that we were going to be stuck in a subway car with this specific group of people – for eternity.
“If you know you’ll be with this group for eternity, does that change how you feel about them? Does it make you more curious? Are you going to get to know them? Or are they going to continue to be strangers?”
It was a great metaphor to remember that everyone we pass, everyone we deal with every day is just one conversation away from being a new friend. But this was the last class of the conference and there was no time to get to know this group. It was time to head home.
Outside, rain was coming down by the bucketload. I had taken the train into NYC from New Haven, Connecticut and needed to get back to Grand Central Station. Getting a cab in NYC in the rain is almost impossible, and this was pre-Uber days, so I waded out into the downpour, happy as a lark, and lit up from a weekend of great learning.
I was soaked but happy when I got to the station. I grabbed a salad and boarded the train. I was early for the 5:35 and settled into my seat to wait. 5:35 came and went. Another ten minutes passed and people started to make eye contact. What was going on? Finally, there was an announcement: The tunnels out of NYC were flooded and the trains were canceled. End of announcement. No “Sorry about that!” No alternatives. Just canceled.
The Grand Central terminal was packed with people trying to decide what to do. I headed outside, thinking about people I could stay with in the city. But they were all a cab ride away and, anyway, I didn’t want to stay another night. There had to be another way out. I looked across the terminal at the central information center. There was one woman working at the kiosk trying to answer everyone’s questions. I heard someone ask her about getting to New Haven and moved in closer to listen.
“Go to the something something something,” she said over a garbled mic, “and take the subway to the something something and from there go the South Bronx train station.”
I had no idea what she was talking about but noticed a businessman in front of me who was taking notes. I followed him as he split off from the crowd.
“Excuse me. Did you understand what she was saying?”
The man looked at me warily and nodded. I stuck out my hand. “My name’s Janie. Can I follow you?”
He reluctantly shook my hand. “My name is Phil,” he mumbled. “You can follow me but I have to get back to my wife and kids. They’re waiting downstairs.”
No problem. I could follow him downstairs. A young blond woman was standing nearby and asked if she could come too. Greta was a nanny, newly arrived from Germany, and needed to get back to Connecticut. I told her not to worry, that Phil knew what he was doing.
Downstairs, Phil’s wife, Cindy, stood huddled with their two kids. Phil explained what was going on, where we were headed, and why two strange women were following him. I smiled at Cindy and she smiled back. She said they’d been in the city overnight with their kids, David and Annie, to see a Broadway show. They had two rolling suitcases and Phil’s hanging bag. The kids had backpacks. Greta and I had bags and we all had soggy umbrellas.
Phil led the way through a series of hallways till we merged with a huge crowd surging toward subway cars headed from Grand Central Station to Times Square. Cars pulled up, people crowded in, and the rest of us would move forward a few feet. Greta and I stayed behind Cindy and the kids so the kids wouldn’t get squished and finally boarded for a short ride across town.
At Times Square, we burst from the crowded car and Phil led the way to a subway that was headed uptown to the Bronx. At one point, I got separated from our group. I wasn’t worried. I figured if I stayed with the massive crowd I would get to the Bronx. But young David wouldn’t go without me. He waited until I re-appeared before he’d board. We came as a group and we were leaving as a group.
When we got to the right platform, we did the same surge, wait, and surge until we squeezed into an already crowded car. Phil, Cindy, Greta, and I formed a tight square around the kids, our luggage pinned between our legs. At each stop, more people attempted to get on the subway. An elderly woman started to wail.
I looked away, then heard Sharon Salzberg’s words. I was in a subway car and was going to be with these people for eternity. My eyes turned to the woman and I smiled. “It will be okay,” I thought. “Eventually, this will clear out.”
The woman didn’t acknowledge me but she stopped wailing. I looked around at other people in the car which was filled to the brim with men and women of every color and every age. Look how interesting they were. As wedged in as I was, I started to feel good. I was with these people for eternity and what a great group we were.
At a stop in Harlem, the subway doors slid open, and a huge man pushed his way aboard. He seemed unaware that there was no room. We all took a breath to give him enough space. The doors slid closed and he looked around.
“Did I miss something,” he asked?
I laughed. He clearly wasn’t used to seeing a subway full of Connecticut commuters at this time of night. “We’re trying to get to Connecticut,” I said. He shook his head and exited at the next stop.
We finally arrived at a South Bronx subway station after what seemed like an eternity and moved like lemmings out into the pouring rain. Greta took Phil’s hanging bag so he could walk ahead to make sure we were going the right way. Cindy grabbed Annie’s hand, and I grabbed David’s.
David asked where we were. I explained that we were in the South Bronx, that he might not be here again in his lifetime, and to enjoy the walk. We headed down a steep hill, then up a hill past a hospital. The sign “Mercy” read like a message.
Around one last corner, the crowd surged toward steps that led down to a train platform. I panicked. How would a crowd this size get down the narrow stairs in an orderly way? The rain picked up in intensity. Greta and I huddled in by the kids, ready to brace.
“Careful,” a man yelled out. “Go slow. We’ve got kids and older folks with us.” Everyone looked up and around. “Yeah,” people yelled. “Watch out for the kids and older folks.” The umbrella’s united us as we carefully made our way down the slick stairs and onto the platform.
Then out of the foggy rain, a train appeared that was miraculously headed to New Haven. We boarded in an orderly manner. It was warm. There were seats for everyone.
I sat and talked with David about theater and school for the hour-long trip to New Haven. At the station, we parted ways with a quick wave. When I got to my car, I took my first long breath of the night, turned on the heat and defogger, and flipped on NPR. Bars of A Tibetan Prayer for Peace filled the car. I laughed. Thanks, Universe, for so many wonderful messages.
Now back to the stress we’re feeling. Trust that most people are good. Trust that things are unfolding the way they are meant to unfold. And trust your instinct to find a path through a mess.
Remember that we are in this subway car together for eternity. Let’s get to know one another so we can all get home.