By Phineas J. Stone
Not long ago, I was able to get out of the Hub for a few days time – off to another region of the country entirely.
Things are so different in the various sectors of our country, and having visited most of them, including my recent trip, Boston remains one of the more unique places with the kind of character that has been built up over generations – nowadays mixing with the newness of glass facades reflecting the oldness of brownstone and brick. It’s all very much its own brand.
However, I was struck by another unique thing when I returned.
I had never realized this aspect of the Hub until returning with fresh eyes – eyes that had been focused for a time on some other place besides here.
I was riding the train in mid-afternoon, just as construction workers of every trade were leaving the job sites, high school kids from the City were heading home and various business people were coming and going. Conversations went from gossip over the kind of lipstick someone had been wearing in Algebra class, to how much the bosses stink at every job site in Boston now – pushing everyone to accomplish the impossible. There were also Chinese folks reading Chinese newspapers and speaking a dialect to one another that I couldn’t identify. An African American man from a bank downtown had reunited with a long lost friend who was getting off his shift as a security guard at South Station. Another female college dental student stood with a backpack and headphones, ignoring the world completely.
Then came something that had been familiar to me when I left, but having not been around for a few days, shocked me.
The woman must have been in her mid-40s, but looked to be 60.
She was incredibly high, obviously on some kind of opiate, and way beyond the ability to function.
Trying to balance a large cloth bag full of stuff on her back, she was surfing in the middle of the train amidst all the people – nearly going down but never quite falling (which is a common refrain for folks in this condition…you always think they’re going to fall, but they never quite hit the toppling point).
She was making quite a scene bouncing to and fro with her eyes closed and her hands reaching out to seemingly look for something to hold on to – while clutching tightly a Mounds candy bar in her right hand. With my fresh eyes, I had forgotten about this, which has grown so common to all walks of people in this ratcheted-up epidemic we’re facing. Where I had been, there were all sorts of problems, but most places don’t have this opiate epidemic on display in the kinds of numbers and dire situations such as we see every day – situations that are so common we can become numb to it.
The woman on the train was ground zero.
However, what was truly bellwether were the reactions on that crowded subway train to this woman in the throes of addiction and higher than high at that very moment – so much so that she couldn’t function well enough to even find a seat and sit down no matter how hard she tried.
Some young men found her comical. They began video recording her and posting it to Instagram or whatever it is they use today. One of them taped it while the other gave the woman a gentle push so they could try to record her falling down. It was all very funny to them. They’ll pay for that one day.
Some people listened to their headphones or read books and absolutely ignored the situation unfolding just five feet from them. For these folks, the problem didn’t even exist.
Others were scared. One woman, likely from the Islands judging from her accent, got very worried eyes and at the first available stop, got up and moved to the other end of the train. About three or four folks followed.
Many others looked on with compassion, but didn’t know what to do.
A patch of tradesman from a downtown job site sat very close to the woman, and as they talked about how everyone at work was busting their (chops), they couldn’t help but take notice. Their first reaction was to give a chuckle as the young woman continued to struggle to stay upright as the train rifled through curves and bumps. These were tough guys from Quincy or the South Shore, maybe from the working class areas of Dorchester – hardened by years of outdoor work on cold, muddy construction projects. Their natural reaction was to be tough about it, to speak in tough words and disdain for her.
One of the toughest talking fellows though, one could easily see, had compassion welling up. He moved in with another friend and they spoke kindly to the woman, though she barely responded. They steadied her and wheeled her around into a seat. Through her fog, she actually thanked them.
However, she couldn’t stay in the seat, as she slumped down and began a half somersault to the ground, using the candy bar in her hand to somehow steady her.
After his friends left, the tough guy construction worker, with his once booming voice on the train, walked over again and in soft tones, said, “Hey Honey, where are you going? Where do you need to get off?”
“I’ll look out for you. Lean on my leg so you don’t fall,” he said.
Over his tough face, and using his hands dirtied from a day on the job, he wiped a brief tear from his eye.
Everyone was watching.
Everyone now wished they’d have done what he did.
One had to wonder if he had been like her at one time, or more likely, maybe he had a sister or a brother who he watched go through the same thing. Or maybe even a parent, a friend. Whatever it was, the hard exterior revealed a compassionate heart willing to display such caring in public and even in front of friends who may not have approved.
Our problem with opiates in Boston is as unique as our lovely city. It can be easy to grow numb to it – to believe it’s a problem for another person, another race or another class group – and it can be tempting to ignore it or be disgusted by it. Go away for awhile, and when you come back – if you live in the City itself – the gravity of the situation will hit you like a 2,000 pound dumbbell.
Were we all willing to extend a caring hand to this problem like the man above, only then would this unique problem in our unique city have a truly unique response.