Friday, January 2, 2009

Heavy Suitcases, Kind Hearts

It was like a flashback to my first day in England. Same overabundance of baggage, same kind stranger….

Okay, so perhaps it was a bit different. In England, it was the middle of the day, and I was boarding a train to go from London to Brighton. Here in New York, it was eleven-thirty at night, and I was getting off the subway at my stop. In both instances, however, I had way too much baggage, all of which was very clearly too heavy for me to handle. In England, I have no idea how I even made it to the train station with my two suitcases, my laptop bag, and my backpack all full-to-bursting. All I know is that when the train arrived and I started trying to drag my suitcases over the uneven gap (which I was continually told to “mind”) and up onto the train, a man walking past the train paused beside me and lifted my second suitcase onto the train beside me. I have never felt such an immense rush of gratitude.

This time around, the only reason I made it all the way to onto the NY subway in the first place with my overstuffed suitcase, overflowing shopping bag, and two-ton backpack was because the Port Authority bus terminal has a direct entrance to the subway system that includes no staircases. Unfortunately, 65th Street Woodside did not provide that same luxury.

So the scene went as follows: there I was, hefting my wheeled duffle-bag suitcase over the space between the subway car and the platform, trying to keep various packages from spilling out of my shopping bag and making sure not to lean too far backward as I yanked at my suitcase, lest the weight of my backpack cause me to topple backward. Eventually (right before the doors closed), I made it off the subway car and began to pull my suitcase in the direction of the steps. Mentally, I began surveying where I should place my bag and backpack that they would still be safely in eyesight while I wrestled the suitcase up the stairs. I had reached the base of the staircase and decided to put my things at the top of the stairs—since, hopefully, that would be the direction I would be facing as I lugged the suitcase up after me—when a gentleman who had been about to ascend the stairs stopped at my side.

“You need help?”

Ordinarily this would seem an informal, almost rude way of asking a very obviously struggling young lady if she needed assistance. However, the omitted “do” at the front of his question was most likely due to limited English rather than linguistic laziness, judging from his thick accent. He was a portly, older Hispanic man, probably in his late sixties, with the enormous pear-shaped body of a line cook or a chef. He had kind, crinkly eyes, and although he did not smile when he asked offered his assistance, he immediately reached for the handle of my suitcase. I experienced the fleeting, instinctual “don’t touch my stuff!” reaction but immediately crushed it, grateful for the help at this time of night. Thus, I protested only weakly.

“It’s really all right…it’s pretty heavy….”

“No no,” he insisted as he let out a huff of ill-concealed surprise, having made a first attempt to lift my suitcase. “Much too heavy for you.” He gripped the handle more tightly than before and began to lurch up the steps.

“Well, thank you.” I followed after him, incredulous that I had found one of the few kind-hearted New Yorkers in the city. We made it up from the train platform and through the turnstiles, only to be confronted with two more sets of stairs—one to the north and one to the south.

“Which way you go?”

“This way. But really, you don’t have to….”

“Not a problem,” he said, mounting the first stair. “This is very heavy. Too heavy for you.”

I could tell he was losing his breath as we continued up the stairs, and part of me felt guilty, but at the same time, this man’s kindness was making my night unimaginably easier, not to mention shorter. Watching him struggle, I envisioned myself trying to maneuver the suitcase alone. It would have taken me a long while to make it out of the subway station.

When we got outside, he waited for me to take the lead.

“Thank you so much,” I gushed, reaching again for my suitcase.

“You live near here?” he asked, still not relinquishing the handle. Suddenly, my initial hesitation at allowing him to help me carry my belongings returned in full force.

“Yes, not far. Just a block. I can take it….”

“Much too heavy,” he objected with a frown. I could see he was wondering how I ever got on the subway to begin with, carrying all of my things. I would have explained, had I not been so worried about how to tactfully get rid of him before we reached my apartment.

“Well thank you,” I said again, taking a few hesitant steps down the block. He followed diligently, dragging the suitcase after him. As we walked, the man proceeded to tell me, in halting English, how he had worked all day—a double shift—and proceeded to confirm my guess, that he did work in the restaurant business. When we reached the corner of my street, I stopped again and attempted to tell him how much I appreciated his help. I was only a few houses away, I told him, so I could take it from here. He wouldn’t think of it. Where did I live? He would bring it to my apartment.

Now I was confronted with a decision. Should I trust this man, who looked so kind and grandfatherly? Should I believe he was truly doing me a favor out of the kindness of his heart? Or should I follow the “practical fear” instinct that told me, objectively, that I was a single young woman out in the middle of the night in Queens, letting a stranger know exactly where she lived?

In the end, because I was sure one of my roommates would be home (they almost never leave the apartment, particularly at night), I allowed him to bring my suitcase all the way up to my doorstep. He wanted to carry it up into my apartment for me, but I lied and told him I lived on the first floor, so it was unnecessary.

“I help someone today and hope someday somebody help me,” he pronounced as I unlocked the door. We shook hands, and as I maneuvered my things inside, he stuck his head around the door to remind me to lock it after myself.

I wish we could believe in the good intentions of all our fellow human acquaintances. This man did me a very kind favor, and I am appreciative. Still, I am saddened to think that I was forced to doubt his kind intentions, even momentarily, out of a concern for my own safety and well-being. I have to wonder if I would have harbored the same doubts had I been in Pittsburgh rather than New York. Our concept of safety is such a capricious thing.

No comments: