Compassionate CommutingFebruary 11th, 2011
I typically am a bike commuter, but this morning I found myself without my wheels and opted to take the muni rail line from the Sunset down to work at Civic Center. The N-line is invariably crowded, today being a particularly stuffy commute, so I thought nothing of it when a man with large Sony headphones pushed up close to me and repeatedly tried to validate his clipper card on the sensor. As the man proceeded to make unusual grunting noises, mumble “too, too many people” and pat himself on the arms and stomach, I quickly realized this gentleman most likely was mentally disabled. His behaviors soon appeared to make several of our fellow Muni-riders uncomfortable, a few people displayed obvious irritation at his loud, repetitive outbursts. Our crowded commute proceeded as expected: uncomfortable, crowded, and before everyone’s morning coffee.
We reached the Duboce/Noe stop and our conductor announced that earlier there had been an emergency in tunnel, so we may have some wait time coming up. To most of my Muni comrades, this news was a minor irritation – to the man with the Sony headphones, this news felt potentially life threatening. He pushed to get off the Muni between stops (where the doors don’t open) and became increasingly agitated. He was truly alarmed by prospect of being trapped in a tunnel for ANY period of time– which honestly, who among us can honestly say they aren’t at least mildly panicked at the thought of being crammed in an overcrowded metal box stuck 30 feet below the ground? I myself avoid taking the underground Muni during rush hours for the exact reason that I hate the idea of being stuck underground in a crowded, confined space. So, I could commiserate with the man’s upset.
It was then when I realized I was not just hearing this man grunt and moan about our delay, but someone else was making similar noises. As I looked around the train, I realized another man was mocking this gentleman’s distress. A few passengers rolled their eyes at the mentally ill man and others giggled at the one mocking him. Something in the pit of my stomach turned sour – this man obviously had a different perception of the situation at hand because of his mental capabilities, and to him this experience was truly frightening. Surrounding passengers found his reaction confusing, and perhaps annoying, and instead of deescalating his fear with compassion and understanding they were mocking his pain.
I was shocked. Was I the only one who thought this was wrong? And then I realized: so much of who I am and how I view the world is because of the values of where I work and those who I work with. The San Francisco Tenderloin, for all the stigma of being a “bad” place, is a community of tolerance and compassion. It is a community where people understands that we are all different, that our experiences often shape the way we view the world, and that if we don’t band together to make life a little easier for one another then it’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.
At the St. Anthony Foundation, we meet people where they are. Many of our clients find themselves ostracized by the general public because they are struggling with mental illness – here, they can be a part of a community where they are welcome. Here people’s suffering is eased by the listening ear of a social worker, by the familiar smile of a regular volunteer, by the comfort of a peaceful place to share a meal. I’m lucky to say I’m on a first name basis with many of our clients, in particular patients at St. Anthony’s Free Medical Clinic, and whenever I pass them on the streets they ALWAYS say hello and brighten my day. One of my favorite clients, a mentally ill gentleman who is very high functioning, tells me Laurel and Hardy jokes every time I see him – it is truly a blessing to feel so much love every day here in the Tenderloin.
But here, on this Muni train filled with commuters dressed in business suits, I suddenly felt alienated. Nobody seemed to recognize the man with the Sony headphones for who he was – someone confused, afraid, and in need of reassurance. A human being, just like the rest of us. For a moment I was angry — how could they be so ignorant! – but this passed and instead, I dug deep and called on what I’ve learned here at the St. Anthony Foundation and its Franciscan Values of healing, community, personalism, justice, and gratitude. I turned towards the man and looked him calmly in the eyes, my back to the crowd.
“It’s ok, it won’t be much longer. We’ve only stopped moving for a little bit, You’ll be ok. We’re all in this together.”
He focused his attention on me and stopped shaking back and forth, asked me a few more times “train has stopped? We’ll get off soon?” confirming with me that, yes, we would eventually disembark. I repeated my answer as many times as he needed to hear it, in a calm voice (only 3) and, satisfied, he focused himself silently on the doors and resumed patting his arms to comfort himself.
We got off at Civic Center, together.