A People Watching People Watcher?

Some of us are preternaturally inclined toward observing the intricacies of human nature in our day to day lives. Others are decidedly nonplussed, apathetic, or entirely too distracted to pay much attention to the customs, norms and rituals playing out in their cultural milieu. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed people watcher or not, there are certain scenarios that make an impact and have the capacity to break through your shell of indifference.

We’ve all had situations present themselves where we’re given the opportunity to do something positive, something nice. Old school romanticism seems to be a dying trend, but chivalry is not limited to merely opening doors for women. Chivalry is the sum of the ideal qualifications of a knight: courtesy, generosity and valor. Male or female, our society would do well to emulate these ideals. People should hold doors open for each other.

As innocuous as the presentation may seem, when you’re faced with the chance to do something good, inexplicably, your senses heighten. Time slows down a beat. If you manage to pay attention for just two seconds you’ll perceive on some level that something larger than you is at work. In these moments it’s not always clear exactly what you’re supposed to do. If you try to directly assist someone in an arena where it doesn’t make sense to do so – if you don’t know what you’re doing, for example – the person you’re trying to help could end up worse off. Sometimes you’re a better advocate than actual hero.

There have been times when I’ve wanted to be a Good Samaritan, but fell short due to a preliminary reality check – I have had these things go way off track more times than I care to admit. Am I really going to push that van out of a snowbank in pure Herculean style while wearing stilettos? Fast forward to – the answer is no. Regardless, from time to time our moral compasses are activated and we feel the urge to help someone we perceive to be in need.

For me this happens a lot. Practically every morning, to be honest – and not because I’m some kind of saint or anything like that. And while we’re being honest, I’m not really much of a people watcher either. Not exactly. I’ll just say it. I’m a people watching people watcher. Now before you go picturing me with one eye and one horn, let me explain. Basically, while everyone is focused on the person at the epicenter of whatever salient scenario happens to be unfolding, I like to observe the people who are watching the show. I’ve always been this way.

During a scary movie I won’t close my eyes. I’ll watch whoever is taking in the intolerably grim or too suspenseful scene to determine when it’s okay to look again. Experiencing gratuitous discomfort affects me in a way that I don’t like. Read: I won’t be able to sleep at night. I grew up in the country in a house with no cable television. Can you imagine? Do you know what we did for entertainment? We went outside. The end result is that I’m not as desensitized as I should be. I get overstimulated easily, so when I’m smack-dab in the middle of a million-plus people, I require a degree of separation. I guess you’d say that looking to others is my coping strategy. Sure, it lends a person to being a bit of a weirdo creepy voyeur, and has the potential to set you up for a bad case of the Bystander Effect if you’re not careful, but hey – no one’s perfect. In reality, I do like to help people when I can.

Which brings me to our person of interest. Each day as I make my approach to the train platform, hair flying and legs pumping, cursing the cold in my usual fashion and dodging anyone not running in a spastic display of pedestrian slalom, I calculate my chances of making the next train. Then I see him. At first glance it’s always a bit disconcerting. The angles and movements seem out of place in the smooth stream of commuters, marching as if in unison.

He inches along with mechanical precision – click step shuffle clank, click step click – concentration etched into his face, a grimace of perseverance. Instinctively I slow down, thinking it callous to race past someone who is putting such concerted effort into each step. Is this the right thing to do? I look to others to see if there’s something we should be doing to help. Everyone trudges on.

From my relatively brief tenure so far as a parent, I know that helping someone who doesn’t want or need your assistance can actually be detrimental to them. Indeed, sometimes not accepting help leads to important lessons or major achievements. Though, don’t we all need a little help sometimes?

Aided with Lofstrand crutches, this man makes the long trek from the bus stop, through the parking lot, across the overpass, through the bustling terminal to the platform – in the time that it takes most of us to reach our end destination. And this is only one small segment of his day. How does he do it? I am in awe of this man that I don’t even know. Truly humbled, I scorn myself for ever complaining about the cold. About anything. If only there was something I could do. But what?

I should probably tell you that I’m a sensitive person. Like, really sensitive. When my parents would lose their patience with me, they’d shout YOU NEED TO TOUGHEN UP. Which I doubt did much to mitigate my rampant over-sensitivity. I once completed an assessment to determine to what degree I am considered a Highly Sensitive Person – yes, that’s a thing – and scored right up around 100%. Makes sense. When I was a kid I cried for an entire afternoon because a bird hit the window and died. Okay, that was just last summer. Whatever. You get my point.

So last night on my way home something magical happened. I was shocked to see him at that time of day, on the platform when it’s even more crowded than during the morning rush. When the woman in front of him let the door close behind her, I nearly screamed out of sheer indignation. What. The. Fuck. Then I had that feeling and I knew something was about to happen. I didn’t want to screw it up. Ommigod. I was going to open the door for him.

I reached for the door just as someone else grabbed the handle, pulled it open. Nooooo! I stood there in disbelief, still with the uncanny feeling that the moment wasn’t yet over. I turned and looked directly at the person that I have mused over so many mornings, noticed the young man holding the door behind him and tried to rein in my envy. I smiled and asked the man with crutches to go ahead. The very least I could do.

He leaned on his supports and shook his head, “After you,” he said.

What?! Time slowed a pace.

“No, please.” I said, taken aback. A bit stricken. I gestured at the doorway. “Go ahead,” I said again, as hordes of people washed by us. I really wanted this one small thing. To do something nice.

It was then that I saw the earnest expression on his face, his pleading smile. Particles of light danced in his eyes and it was all too much for me. What the hell was going on? I looked to the fellow holding the door for guidance, my rival-turned ally. He nodded. Suddenly I understood what was meant. The circumstances allowed for the man with crutches to hold the door for me.

“Thank you so much,” I said, with a small flourish.

And he said, “No, thank you.”

Perhaps chivalry isn’t dead after all.

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