View from Rue Saint-Georges

Strangers on a Train

A new perspective born of unexpected kindness

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | July 25, 2018
Flickr/ruin-of-decay

Last week, my daughter and I were taking the commuter train to Paris through the suburbs, the heavily immigrant banlieues that are the corollary of an American inner city. While I was boarding and struggling with our bags, I failed to notice when my sunglasses fell from my shirt and onto the platform. The alarm sounded, signaling that the doors would begin closing, and a middle-aged man, whom I took to be an African immigrant, said, “Monsieur, your glasses!”

I looked out and saw them several yards away and realized that I wouldn’t have time to retrieve them and get back to my daughter. A young, also African-looking teenager (which is to say stereotypically “foreign”-looking, though the impression carries some irony, given that I too am a foreigner here) leaped up and bolted onto the platform. He had been sitting in the middle of the stairwell to the train’s upper level, and moments before, as I’d passed him with my daughter and our bags, I had complained to myself, with reflexive annoyance, about his lack of courtesy: Why couldn’t he just sit in a seat like everyone else?

As the doors started to close, the first man, who did not seem to know the teen any more than he knew me, shoved his own body between them and was squeezed hard as the train lurched forward. The teen, for all he knew, may have just stranded himself for another hour.

But because the man had held the doors, which together we were able to pull apart, the teen acrobatically slipped back through. He handed me my glasses and barely allowed me to thank him. Both he and the older man acted as though it were normal to do something like this for a stranger.

It’s hard to describe how enormously kind and self-sacrificing all this seemed to me. I know it’s pointless to make group generalizations based on the actions of individuals, but I also find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine such generosity coming from other, supposedly better-off, and more secure parts of society.

 

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