A seat given up, a judgement destroyed

Many would not expect generosity from travelers on a NJ Transit train, but sometimes acts of kindness can come from those judged to be less than friendly. (Google Images)

As I walked around Manhattan, celebrating a friend’s birthday this past weekend, I judged.

From storefronts, I blindly guessed restaurants to be expensive or affordable. From banners and colored lights, I considered bars and clubs to be upscale or seedy dives. From the counter, I judged a Lower East Side McDonalds for still having Fruitopia as a choice of fountain drink.

Our planet’s center of commerce is stuffed with countless gawkers walking around, wearing garb they consider to be chic enough for a day or night in the city and hoping to be seen. Not by anyone specific in most cases, but at least viewed in a light considered positive or favorable. No one wants to be a loser in New York City.

After two nights of bright lights and sensory overload, a chance observation in the most mundane of places turned my view of “judge and be judged” on its head.

It was on a Sunday afternoon NJ Transit train headed from New York Penn Station to Trenton. Each of the single-level train’s cars were filled with people, either two to a seat or one with a large suitcase or bag on their hip, likely signaling their lacking desire for human contact among the worn, brown leather seats.

After a few minutes on the train, I noticed a man standing in his seat a few rows ahead of my friends and I, moving his luggage to the overhead area.

He was a very thin, unshaven white man in his late-20s to early-30s, with an ill-fitting black skull cap and a faded black tank top — the kind that has no fabric from the shoulder going down the side of the ribcage and reconnects near the hip.

A clearer image might be that of a Pantera cover band’s touring bass player. If he had a jacket, I didn’t see it.

The man also had a noticeably large scar on his right elbow. It appeared to be due to some sort of reconstruction due to injury more so than a motorcycle accident’s lasting impression. Whichever the cause, the misshapen ball of his elbow stuck out farther than it should have.

From what I gathered in my passing glances, this man appeared to be fairly rough-and-tumble. I immediately began to paint a picture of his difficult life and drug abuse, which must have led to some bar fight, and consequently, his scar.

It was the Newark Liberty or Newark Penn Station stop when a mid-20s black woman carrying her young son — he was no older than two, I’d say — got onto the train. She entered our car, child on one hip, purse on the other and could not find a place for the two to settle. She walked to the front of the car to stand.

A minute or two later, the man with the scar rose from his seat and grabbed his bag from above. He left with his duffle, walked to the front of the car and approached the woman and child. They returned a few seconds later as the man whom I had absolutely judged to be more of a loner than a Good Samaritan led the woman to his seat. She and her son sat and he went to look for another place to rest.

The middle-aged, black conductor with a grey cardigan who had punched our tickets a few minutes earlier saw this and said something to the effect of, “Chivalry isn’t dead after all.”

I know I am not the only one who saw this exchange take place, but I wonder if I was the only one to feel guilty for not offering my seat first. If I was carrying a toddler on a train, I’d like to be able to sit as well.

I suppose the best way I can relate this random act of generosity to college life is that, despite all of the different types of people who coexist on this campus, we can all learn a lesson from the man with the scar: If we are going to judge someone, judge them on their actions, not their appearance. I don’t want to conclude with the “actions speak louder than words” cliché, but after two days in what is often recognized as the greatest and most entertaining city in the world, sitting on the train and watching my preconceptions fall and get stuck to the floor is what I will remember most of this trip.