What "Less Fortunate" Really Means
By emily timbol
March 23, 2010
Sitting on the cold, dirty floor of the Greyhound Station in New York City wasn’t something I planned for my weekend vacation. Due to the freak blizzard last December, my sister’s and my flight home was cancelled, and there were no available flights for four days. This was told to us after many, many hours on the phone with every airline we tried (I’m convinced the “hold” music American Airlines plays is specially and purposely engineered to elicit the most rage a person is capable of). Unfortunately, there were also no available trains. The irony was not lost on me that had I been sitting by John Candy, this would have made for a hilarious comedy. Only I didn’t have John Candy next to me, I had a homeless man who was staring at me.
Initially when the blizzard hit, I wasn’t that worried that I might not get home. That changed about two hours before checkout time. Thankfully, while my sister and I panicked, our dad booked us two Greyhound tickets home. There were two things I knew about Greyhound buses: 1)They were notoriously used by the homeless/ex-cons/smelly cracked out hippies, and 2) Their stations were always in the scariest, dirtiest parts of every town. And I was going to the one in NYC. All I could picture was ICE-T standing over my body, shaking his head.
After getting to the station we found a “Café” (I use that term loosely) to wait in, but moved because of some rough looking men making sexual comments about us. At this point I was already far beyond my comfort zone, so when the homeless man now sitting next to me asked if I could plug my laptop into his extension cord so he could charge his Blackberry, I almost lost it. Had I been less stressed out I would have asked him if he had that many electronics on him that he needed to carry an extension cord, or, was he just that clever that he knew if there was only one outlet, people needed to share? Instead, I moved to the line for our bus, which was courteously separated from the outside below freezing air by an open sliding glass door. Our bus didn’t depart for four hours, but it’s first come first serve for seats. I learned that from another homeless-looking woman, who had all her stuff in trash bags.
At some point in the three hour wait I had to use the bathroom. On my return (the bathroom was just as dirty and smelly as you’d imagine) I saw station employees running past me, shouting about a man that had fallen. After turning around I saw him succumb to a seizure. I kept walking. In my mind I justified this by telling myself there was nothing I could do. I patted myself on the back since, when safely back in line, I told my sister who‘s a CPR certified lifeguard. She immediately ran over and instructed the station workers, who were all standing around staring, to help her roll him on his side so he wouldn’t choke if he vomited. She stayed with him and comforted him until the police arrived, when she quietly slipped away. I took credit for the fact that, had I not been brave enough to keep walking, he never would have gotten help. Essentially I saved his life.After fifteen hours on the road we were little more than halfway there. I was nearing the brink of insanity. Every hour or so we stopped to let people change buses and use the restroom (every passenger had to exit) which prevented any real sleep. When we re-boarded after the three am stop, I accidentally forgot my ticket on the bus, and was harshly chided by the driver, who looked exactly like the title character in the movie Jackie Brown. This was my breaking point. I felt the anger and bitterness that had been simmering in my head start to rise in my throat, and with as much sarcasm and disdain as I could muster I spat out, “I’m sorry, I’ve never taken a bus before.” There it was. What I had been hearing but trying to ignore, that voice saying, “I am better than this, I don’t belong here, these aren’t the kind of people I should be traveling with.”
The worst part of this trip for me wasn’t the dirty bathrooms, the smelly people or the horrible truck stop food. It was the truth about myself I was faced with; that I am a classist, an elitist and someone who easily and passively looks down on others. Glaring at that bus driver, it dawned on me that I was a person who was only kind to the less fortunate when they were just that: less fortunate. On that bus and in that station, I was just as “fortunate” as everyone else. I was treated no different than the guy talking to himself or the woman on drugs; there was no distinction of “me” and “them.” For the first time, I was “them”, and I hated it.
What stung even worse was seeing my little sister, who was in the exact same circumstances as me, reacting totally differently. I couldn’t pretend that, “anyone would act like I did.” She never complained. She never seemed uncomfortable. She asked every cashier, ticket taker and janitor how their day was going, and wished them all a Merry Christmas. She was everything I thought I was; only she wasn’t faking it.
Ironically, right before the man had the seizure at the NYC station, my sister tried to cheer me up with the old, “maybe God is doing this for a reason” line. Afterwards, I thought the reason had been to help the man, but now I think God did it to humble me. I volunteer and serve quite a bit, and the frustrating thing is the more “good” I did, the better I felt about myself. I had believed I was something I’m not; a “good” person, which in Gospel terms, simply doesn’t exist.
Now that I’ve been humbled, I hope I can stop setting an invisible barrier between myself and the people I’ve been called to serve. Like the homeless sitting all around me as I type this in the library downtown. Before, I would be back and forth between feelings of pity and discomfort, but today, I’m seeing that they are no different than I am. We all just happen to be in the same place.