Exclusion Without Words

The doors slid open and there was the usual rush of bodies all vying for space on the crowded subway car. In New York, the dash from platform to subway car requires special attention.

As a visitor, I quickly learned to adapt to the rhythm of riding the New York subway. There are certain norms to follow to successfully (and safely!) join of experience of commuting in new York. The clash of people and space requires focus and attention (don’t step on toes!) along with just the right social distance (avoid eye contact). The pace and pulse of people is both invigorating and exhausting. Yet somehow, through the chaos, there is a sense of connection in this community of commuters.

But on this one day, as I joined the human funnel into the subway car, I was surprised to be met by empty space once inside. Here I was confronted with another subway norm. Actually, to be more specific, I was confronted by a person, a lone man illustrating this other norm.

He had nearly half the car to himself. It quickly became apparent why. Filthy clothes. Visibly intoxicated. Warbled phrases mixing obscenity and absurdity could be heard. Wafts of odor unknown and unwanted. The spaciousness around him wasn’t surprising. But it did say something.

My sense of connection was met with visible exclusion. Exclusion, whether intentional or not, came in different forms.

Locals were mostly indifferent. Not a glance or comment, just a shuffle to the other side of the car. A few locals, however, were visibly disgusted. Quick glances and whispering signaled judgment. Exclusion doesn’t have to be said to be heard.

A tourist, pushing a stroller, blindly rolled up right beside the man, only to heed the frantic waves of his partner to wheel his child to safety. Here exclusion came through fear.

I felt stuck. Who was I as a visitor to try and rectify this experiment in exclusion? I decided to take a stand. Literally. I stood firmly beside this man. I tried to catch his eyes, but his gaze was cloudy and disturbed. A conversation clearly wasn’t an option. So I just stood. It was an uncomfortable 5 minutes. But I stood.

And nothing happened.

Indifference. Disgust. Fear. I’ll admit, I felt a bit of each one. And how many times each day do I tend towards judgment and labeling of those who don’t fit in? But that day I realized indifference, disgust and fear weren’t my only options. For 5 minutes beneath New York, I stood.

Inclusion can be said without words too.


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