February 2, 2012

The Prophet in the Subway

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The A train only makes express stops on the Upper West Side of New York, so if you’re going local you have to take the 1 train. For me, coming from the bridge, that means hopping off the A and transferring at 168th Street. It’s a pretty dirty station, and a pain in the ass because you have to take a slow and crowded elevator to switch platforms. Then, once you exit the elevator, turn the corner and descend the steps to the downtown platform, you may come face to face with the local prophet.

There are a lot of strange people in the subway tunnels of New York. As far as religious bozos, there are the prophets and the preachers. First, the preachers — these are the guys with the bullhorns in the 7th-8th Avenue tunnel at 42nd street, or the pamphleteers at Penn Station. The preachers believe that they are ordinary men spreading the word of God to his children gone astray. They really, really want you to choose heaven over hellfire. They’re earnest. They’re persistent. They’re painfully annoying. Hell doesn’t seem that bad compared to a heaven stocked with the preachers.

The prophets, on the other hand, are usually crazy, usually bums. They think they are actual messengers of God, and they alternate between mumbling to themselves and shouting their ruminations at you. They’re the new Ezekiel, and nobody seems to care. Our man on 168th Street, on the downtown platform of the  1 train, is a prophet.

He’s homeless, and obviously so. His face is unshaven and unwashed, his coat ragged, its stuffing spilling forth. He’s probably drunk, or at least psychologically unstable. He sits with his back to the wall, his legs and feet splayed before him. It’s the feet you’ll notice first: bare, dirty and swollen. Then, if you listen to his shouts, moans and proclamations, you’ll know he’s a prophet: “And thus says the Lord, we are all sinners, repent, repent, repent,” and so on.

The subway riders, comparatively clean and emotionally sound, recoil from the prophet and his feet as they hurry on toward their destinations. They crank up the volume on their iPods to drown out his cries, disgust unhidden in their countenances.

One morning not long ago, I too raised the volume and boarded the 1 train. This time though, the prophet follows me, lumbering bare-footed into the same car. He sits down two seats away from me, alternately intoning dire predictions and fading off into groans, then beginning anew. I tune him out, the volume so high I can’t even hear the screeching of the train brakes. I’ve got a little while to go, so I close my eyes for a few stops, and open them to find the car empty. Puzzled, I glance to the cars before and after mine. They’re full. Pause the music — and the prophet is wailing, crying his divine vision so loud that it may just reach heaven.

I, too, flee to the next car. And around me I feel the undisguised relief of the others who left — leaving “that thing,” that “disgusting drunk” behind. We exchange knowing glances, rolls of the eyes. Typical homeless man, our glances say. We don’t need to be around that bum, with his disgusting feet and stupid ranting. We’re serious members of society. We’re smarter, and sure as hell cleaner. We’re better. Aren’t we?

I’m not so sure. If I could look around that car again, I’d realize that I didn’t know anything about those other subway riders except that they, too, thought the prophet was annoying. I didn’t know their backgrounds, their relationships, their professions, their personalities. My fellow riders and I were united momentarily by only one thing: pride. We shared a smug moment of disgust at something obvious, something physical — ugliness, filth and noise. But beyond that, anything could lie behind those suits, jeans, headphones and shoes. For all I knew, one of those anonymous riders had secrets far more heinous than any of the prophet.

And that’s the problem with disgust at the obvious things, at subway prophets and other dark denizens of the commute. It’s too convenient a revulsion — one that overwhelms our compassion, but even more insidiously, our awareness of the less-apparent forms of immorality hidden among us. Now, I’m not one to argue that the bum contributes as much to society as the businessman. But neither am I willing to absolve myself and others of iniquities that are merely less noticeable than the ravings of a homeless man. After all, grimy feet need only soap and water for a cure, but some dirty hands cannot be washed.

Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts  and Sciences. He may be reached at jpanter@cornellsun.com. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jonathan Panter