Hu­man­ity in the bal­ance

An en­counter poses a test: Show com­pas­sion or good sense?

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - SANDY BANKS

I left work later than usual Mon­day night and walked to­ward the Civic Cen­ter tran­sit sta­tion along a de­serted stretch usu­ally clogged with cars and pedes­tri­ans.

I crossed the street to avoid a wild-haired man whose stare un­nerved me. I sped up as I passed a hunched fig­ure shrouded in blan­kets, guard­ing a shop­ping cart.

Down­town at night — for all its pricey lofts and new yoga spots — is still a work in progress. The di­sheveled

and dis­pos­sessed re­claim their space when the com­muters clear out.

I didn’t feel scared walk­ing those three blocks, but I did breathe more eas­ily once I’d made my way down the stairs, through the turn­stile and onto the brightly lit plat­form to wait for the Red Line train.

I’d plopped down on a bench to read the pa­per when I no­ticed a man am­bling to­ward me. Dark­haired, with a neat mus­tache and pleas­ant smile, he was car­ry­ing a few flimsy shop­ping bags. Only his heavy parka — on a swel­ter­ing day — hinted that some­thing might be off.

I made the mis­take of meet­ing his eyes; that un­leashed a string of ques­tions: Where are you go­ing? How was your day? Why do you look so tired?

He moved to­ward me and leaned in. “You look like you need a hug,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me — not so tight that I couldn’t break free, but hard enough that my cheek pressed against his soiled and smelly jacket.

I didn’t know what to think.

I reached around and pat­ted his back as you might a child’s. Then I pulled away and mum­bled a “thank you” that I hoped he would per­ceive as “good­bye.”

I went back to read­ing and he went back to star­ing. “Can I have your num­ber?” he asked. I said no, but he per­sisted. “Can I give you mine?”

He leaned over and tried to hug me again. I stiff­ened this time and drew back. I shook my head, turned away and he fi­nally wan­dered off.

When the train pulled in and I lined up to board, he met me at the door. He pressed a piece of pa­per into my hand: “Jose,” it said, in neat hand­writ­ing, above a phone num­ber. I shoved it in my purse and hur­ried into the crowded car with­out look­ing at him.

On the way home, my body itched and my throat felt tight.

I never want to be that woman who clutches her purse a lit­tle tighter when a black man walks by. I want to be nice, not judgey.

I know he’s not the only guy who’s slipped a phone num­ber to some­one he’d like to know. And I of­ten chat up strangers in public and greet ac­quain­tances with hugs.

So why did this feel so un­com­fort­able? Maybe be­cause it’s hard to know whether some­one is dan­ger­ously un­bal­anced or just so­cially in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

On my drive from the sta­tion, I called my old­est daugh­ter — the cau­tious, re­spon­si­ble one. She couldn’t be­lieve I’d been so reck­less, that I’d so cava­lierly let that man in­vade my space. Our con­ver­sa­tion con­jured up the risks: I could have been pick-pock­eted, con­tracted the measles or been stabbed.

At home, my mid­dle daugh­ter in­sisted that I’d done noth­ing wrong. Maybe the man had had a hard day and re­ally needed a hug. Maybe sub­mit­ting to his em­brace was a way to prac­tice com­pas­sion.

And maybe a long hot shower was all I needed to move on.

By the time my youngest daugh­ter called, I’d stopped itch­ing but hadn’t man­aged to shake the feel­ing that I had done some­thing wrong: It was risky to ac­cept his hug. It was rude to run him off.

She’s ac­cus­tomed to dilem­mas like mine. She lives in San Fran­cisco on a dicey stretch of Mar­ket Street crowded with va­grants and ad­dicts. Her daily rou­tine re­quires a lot of fend­ing off and avoid­ing. She re­lies per­pet­u­ally on split-sec­ond as­sess­ments: Who’s threat­en­ing, who’s just loud and an­noy­ing, who’s off their meds to­day.

Try­ing to stay on the safe side of that shift­ing line is emo­tion­ally ex­haust­ing. You want to be nice, but not too nice, she said.

Her ad­vice? Wear head­phones or ear buds in public, even if they are not con­nected to any­thing. The sight is an iso­lat­ing force that blocks so­cial over­tures. They cre­ate a space that most strangers know not to breach.

They give you per­mis­sion to ig­nore some­one — and not feel guilty for it.

I held on to Jose’s num­ber for sev­eral days be­fore I de­cided to call. No one an­swered the first few times. Truth­fully, I was grate­ful. I didn’t know what I’d ask or how I’d ex­plain my cu­rios­ity about our brief en­counter.

On Fri­day morn­ing, Jose picked up, sound­ing pleas­ant and sane. “I’m the woman you met at the Red Line sta­tion down­town,” I said. He was si­lent, so I bab­bled on: “You wanted a hug. I’d had a long day. You gave me your phone num­ber.”

“Yes,” he said brightly. “And you called!”

I asked, as del­i­cately as I could, why he’d in­sisted that I take his num­ber.

“Why?” he re­peated. “To make friends.” He said it slowly, like a ques­tion, his voice ris­ing on the word “friends.”

I felt both re­lieved and em­bar­rassed. There was noth­ing dark or com­pli­cated about what Jose had done. He’d reached out to a per­son who had in­deed needed a hug that night.

I thanked him and said that maybe I would call again. “Yes!” he said. “Can I have your num­ber?”

I wished him a won­der­ful day and hung up gen­tly.

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

DOWN­TOWN AT night is still a work in progress. The di­sheveled and dis­pos­sessed re­claim their space when the com­muters have cleared out.

Ste­fano Paltera For The Times

A NIGHT­TIME Red Line en­counter down­town was not the usual chat­ting-with­strangers-in-public ex­pe­ri­ence. What was it that made this one dif­fer­ent?

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