Pay It Forward
I looked around hoping to find an open seat. The Metro North train was overcrowded, and I was utterly wiped out. After spending the day outside the city at an outing for the Manhattan law firm where I was an intern, it was time to take the train home to New York City from Westchester. The day had been filled with a lot of eating, drinking, and some of the firm’s partners even played tennis.
Although I had learned to play with my dad and brothers as a child in Urbana, I felt uncomfortable bringing my racquet. As I expected, no one even questioned if I wanted to play, and I suppose they assumed I probably couldn’t, given my physical condition. Instead, I spent the day mingling with other interns, especially Anne, who was happy to hang with me when she wasn’t playing tennis with her boyfriend, Ted. Anne was extremely pretty, with blonde hair, and a beautiful physique. Although I was dating my boyfriend, Randy, at the time, he didn’t come for the firm’s outing. “Meg, you look exhausted. Come sit here near us!” It was Anne. She and Ted were also on their way back to Manhattan and hooked me up with a seat across from them. I told them all of those hours in the sun had gotten to me. I was grateful we were sitting near one another.
“Tickets!” The train conductor’s booming voice startled me. We had been on for less than 15 minutes, but I must have dozed off. As I reached for my wallet, the conductor looked at me, then at my hands. “Half-price, Miss.” Still a bit dazed, I was confused. “How come?” I asked
calmly. “The disabled don’t have to pay full price.” Perhaps it was the heat from the day, maybe the embarrassment in front of Anne and Ted, but mostly, I was stunned at that description of me. I had been raised to believe that although I looked different, I could do most everything anyone with ten fingers could accomplish. The label “disabled” felt like a sharp punch in the stomach with no warning. Tears began to stream from my eyes. “No, I insist! I am not disabled! I have to pay full price!” I practically shouted. The conductor looked at me like I had a screw loose. “Ok, suit yourself.” After he was gone, I continued to cry. I looked up and saw Anne and Ted, and felt a stinging sense of embarrassment. While Anne tried to console me, it didn’t help. After all, we were simply work colleagues, and in that moment I needed a good friend.
After I got home, I called my close friend from college, Lia, and once again cried my eyes out. Here I was, a law student, living independently in New York City, but none of it mattered. Regardless of how much I had accomplished in my life, the way the world saw me and how I saw myself just didn’t match, and I hated it. However, I still had much to learn, and was nowhere near flaunting my difference (notice my hands hidden in the photo with Lia…).
My friend Stacey and I were hustling through Penn Station, trying to make the subway. Because of the rain, everything had been backed-up that morning, and I would be lucky if I made it in to the office anywhere near my typical arrival time. As we approached the turnstile, Stacey swiped her card first and waited for me to come. I could already hear the subway approaching, and knew there would be only moments before it arrived. I swiped my card. “Insufficient Fare” read the turnstile meter. “Oh crap!” I cursed aloud. “Meg, here, borrow my card.” “No thanks Stacey, you go ahead. I think this is the second time in a month this has happened to us together! I need to load my card anyway. Talk to you later.” “Ma’am, go ahead.” I looked up, and there was a gorgeous NYC police officer who had already taken it upon himself to swipe a card so I could enter for free. In that moment, I felt conflicted. “Yet another person taking pity on me,” I thought silently. But the reality was, if I didn’t go through the turnstile, someone else would anyway. As I moved swiftly through to make the train with my friend, I turned back. “Hey, thanks a lot.” “My pleasure,” he said with a sweet and sincere grin. While hanging onto the pole inside the subway car, I turned to my friend Stacey and laughed. “Well, besides making the train, at least this was good for my blog!”
Later that evening, I went home and posted the incident on my “Don’t Hide It Flaunt It” Facebook page. Inviting all comments, I posed the following, “Was this a wonderful experience or, alternatively, one that should leave me feeling inadequate?” Unanimously, the comments were positive toward the officer. “Meg, accept the gesture regardless of the reason.” “Say thanks and be appreciative.” “[There is] nothing wrong with accepting the kindness of a stranger.” There were also a few that advised that perhaps the cop was noticing me and thought I was attractive, rather than my hands. “He did it because you are a beautiful woman and that’s how men work.” That one made me laugh. Then there was my brother-in-law Mat who reminded me of the “Pay it Forward” concept. I learned the notion from the movie by the same name. “Meg, sometimes, one just does nice things for other people to make the world go smoothly. That’s not charity or pity. That’s efficiency and warmth.”
I will already tell you all, that when the cop paid my fare, regardless of his intention, I felt inadequate, even flawed. I can’t help it. Never believing myself to be in need, I never think of myself as deserving any special treatment. And let’s face it, I didn’t see the officer swiping his card for anyone before me or afterward. Also, as much as I would like to think that some cops are out giving free-bees to people simply inspired by their beauty, that is a stretch for me.
However, I now have the ability, fortunately, to move past my initial gut reactions on these occasions. One comment from a woman named Megan actually summed it up for me the most. “Meg, inadequate is the knee-jerk response, but resist. You will never know for certain whether he noticed your hands, your beauty, or your gentle spirit. But it doesn’t matter. He gave you a small gift….” At the end of the day, the easy thing has always been for me to feel instantly hurt inside when someone makes a gesture, regardless of intention, that makes me feel like less of a person. My friend Ayala’s comment was also spot-on. “Meg, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Enough said.” I get it. Rather than resent these well-intentioned overtures, appreciate them, embrace them, and most importantly, pay them forward. I hope we all get that, regardless of what we look like.
These days when a NJ transit conductor takes one glance at me and charges me a reduced fair, I gratefully accept….and with the difference in savings, give it to someone in need. But “paying it forward” doesn’t always have to happen as a result of someone’s actions or attitude about difference. One day this week I took the train and due to overcrowding, the conductor never got to my seat to collect. Walking out of the station, I passed someone advocating for the homeless. He was asking for “even a penny.” To his surprise, I dropped the equivalent of my fare, $10, into his clear container. “Enough said,” indeed.