THE SUBWAY MAN

The subway car, like always, was jammed during the Monday evening rush hour. John Hagar stood close to the door, hanging on to the railing with one hand and holding his briefcase in the other. The train moved forward with a jerk and instantly people pulled out their phones, paperback books and anything else they had that could divert their attention away from the crowded unpleasantness they were forced to endure each workday.

There was almost no conversation as each person attempted to put up an invisible wall around themselves to prevent any type of interaction. Only the sound of the train on the tracks disturbed the silence – until a young black man seated in the back corner of the car stood up.

Appearing to be in his early twenties, he was extremely thin and his clothes were ragged. But although disheveled, he seemed to be lucid and fully aware. John watched as the man turned to an older woman on his right and spoke to her. She chose to ignore him and turned away.  

The man did not seem offended, and John guessed that this was the response he typically got. Unfazed, he simply moved on to the next person, a middle-aged man holding a book. This time John paid attention, and he heard the young man say in an upbeat voice, “Hi! My name is Darius. What’s your name?” Although there seemed to be a minor issue with his speech, he was easily understandable. But again, the individual did not answer and continued to read. Darius, however, showed no sign of disappointment.

As John watched, he realized the man had some type of intellectual challenge. Darius took a few more steps, and there was a noticeable limp. He positioned himself next to a man wearing an expensive suit. “Hi! My name is Darius. What’s your name?” The man never looked up from his phone.

John watched this same scenario play out several more times as Darius got closer and closer. Eventually, the young man stepped up to him. “Hi! My name is Darius. What’s your name?”

“My name is John. It’s nice to meet you, Darius.”

For a moment the young man was too surprised to respond. But after a few seconds, he broke into a huge grin and stuck out his right hand. They shook and suddenly John realized that everyone on the subway car was now watching, many with expressions of disapproval. However, there was a petite woman dressed in bright blue who was viewing the encounter with intense interest.

Darius said, “I’ve never seen you on this train before.”

John shook his head. “No, I don’t get into the city that often, but I’ll be here for a week to take care of some business……Do you ride the trains often?”

“All the time. It’s my favorite thing to do. Hey, how come you’re not talking on a cell phone. Don’t you have one?”

John reached into his jacket, pulled out his phone and then replaced it.

Darius glanced to his left and then to the right. “I’m getting a phone tomorrow.” He put his hand into his pocket and brought out a small wad of bills. He leaned in closer and whispered, “I have a hundred dollars.”

John looked at the crumpled money in his hand and saw that it was actually just a few dollar bills.

Proudly Darius said, “It took me forever to save it up. But I did it.”

John studied the man in front of him. His demeanor was happy and easy-going, but there were scars on his face that indicated his life had been otherwise.

Darius explained further. “I don’t have enough money to get a special phone – so I gotta get a regular one.”

John wasn’t sure what he meant. “What is a special phone?”

Darius was surprised the man didn’t understand. “With a regular phone I can only talk to people, but with a special phone I could talk to my Grandma in heaven.”

His innocence struck John with surprising force. “I’m sorry you can’t talk to her.”

“Me too. She took care of me – but she got real sick and died.”

“That’s too bad. It’s not easy to lose someone you love.”

“Do you have a grandma?”

“I had two grandmas, but they’ve also passed away. But I know what you mean. It would be nice to be able to talk to them again.”

“Someday I will. My grandma is an angel now. She can see me, but I can’t see her. But when I go to heaven, I’m going to give her the biggest hug ever.”

That made John smile. “Darius, do you have any other family, maybe brothers or sisters?”

Darius frowned. “I had an older brother once, but he joined a gang and someone shot him. I had a picture of us together when we were really little, but my stuff got stolen, and I lost it.”

John shook his head. “I’m so sorry.”

“He was a lot older than me. It’s hard to remember what he looked like.”

“What was his name?”

“Jalen.” Darius looked down at the floor and then back at John. “Let’s talk about something else.”

John could see the pain on the young man’s face, and he felt bad for bringing it up. “Okay.”

Darius changed the topic. “I don’t like it when people are bad. My grandma told me that if you look for it, love is everywhere. You think that’s true?”

John didn’t want to mislead him. “Hopefully, we find love when we need it.” But he seriously doubted that had been true for Darius. In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever met anyone who needed love more than the young man in front of him.

But Darius seemed resigned to his life. “People are not very friendly. They don’t like to talk to me.”

“I guess you’re right. Most of them seem like they’re too busy.”

“I like talking to people. It makes me feel good……I’m glad you’re not too busy.”

“Even if I was busy, I would be happy to talk to you.”

Darius smiled. “Why are you different?”

John answered honestly. “We are all different, but in many important ways we’re the same.”

The young man was confused. “What do you mean?”

John thought for a second and then said, “Look at you and me. We’re riding the subway at the same time, sharing the same car. We’re having a conversation because we feel like talking. We both wish people were nicer, and we’ve found out that we have each lost people in our lives that we love. We have many things in common.”

Darius smiled again. “I like you. You’re a nice man. I wish everyone would talk like you. I live by myself, and I get lonely. But when I’m on the train, I’m around people. Even if they won’t talk to me, at least I’m not alone.”

John thought about how severe the circumstances had to be to force someone to search for human connection among strangers on a train.

Darius’ eyes swept around the car. “Do you think any of them are lonely?”

“Yes, I do. In their own way, they are lonely.”

Believing it was none of his business, John hesitated to ask, but after a few moments, he couldn’t resist. “Where do you live Darius?”

The young man was not bothered by the question. “Oh, just here and there. Wherever I can.”

Gently, John asked, “Where will you sleep tonight?”

Darius shrugged. “Not sure. I’ve gotta find someplace safe, so I can guard my money. What about you?”

“The company I work for has a hotel room for me.”

“With a real bed?”

“Yes.”

“And a TV?”

“Yes.”

“Wow! You are so lucky.”

“Yeah, I guess I am.”

Suddenly, John was overwhelmed with the urge to offer the young man some money so he could at least get a hot meal. In a discreet voice he asked, “Darius, I know you are saving your money for a phone, but would it be okay if I gave you a few extra dollars so you could get something to eat?”

John was shocked when Darius recoiled in horror. “No! No! I can’t do that! Taking money from people can get me kicked off the subway. My grandma always told me to obey the rules, so that’s what I gotta do. I want to keep riding the train. No thanks!”

Trying to calm him down, John said, “Okay. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Darius softly clapped his hands together to try and release his anxiousness.

Although he didn’t want to say the wrong thing, John still couldn’t help expressing his concern for the young man. “I’m sorry you get lonely. It can’t be easy being all by yourself.”

Darius shrugged. “You sorta get used to it. Besides, that’s just the way it is. Maybe someday I’ll meet somebody who wants to be my friend – but maybe not.”

John knew his stop was coming up, and he wanted to part ways on a positive note. “Well, Darius, I’ve got to get off soon. But I’ll be in town for the rest of the week, and I’ll keep a lookout for you. Maybe we can talk again.”

Darius smiled broadly. “That would be great!”

Within a few seconds, they arrived at John’s destination, and as he got ready to exit the train, Darius looked at him in a way that was touching and said, “Thanks for being so nice to me.”

John smiled. “Thank you for being so friendly. Please, take care.”

As John stepped onto the platform and the train door closed, an uneasiness came over him. His brief conversation with the young man had been unsettling. Lost in thought, he had only gone a short distance when he noticed the petite woman dressed in blue quickly approaching. Her brisk walk appeared to be her normal pace.

The woman, who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, did not hesitate to speak up when she got to him. “Excuse me, Sir.”

“Yes?”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I’m curious about why you engaged in conversation with that man on the train.”

John was momentarily confused. “What do you mean?”

“I was watching the whole time. You were the only one who spoke to him.”

John shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it, I just treated him like I would any other person.”

She looked at him with a certain amount of admiration. “You must be a man of compassion.”

John thought she was making too much of a brief conversation. “I try to be – but it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“I think it was to him.”

“Well, maybe.”

“Let me introduce myself. My name is Katy Pagett.”

John was caught by surprise. “For some reason, your name seems familiar – but I can’t quite place it.”

Katy made the face she always made when people thought they recognized her name. “I’m a reporter for the Post.” She extended her right hand.

“Yes, yes. That’s right. I remember now.”

As they shook hands, he said, “John Hagar. It’s nice to meet you.”

Katy spoke at the same pace she walked. “I’ve ridden this same train five days a week for over a year. And in the last six months or so I’ve seen that man dozens of times, but no one has ever talked with him for any length of time.”

Gently, John asked, “Including you?”

Katy’s voice softened. “I’m afraid so. I’m embarrassed to admit that, just like everyone else, I’ve always turned away from that particular individual.”

Although John couldn’t help but wonder why they were even having this conversation, she obviously wanted to talk about the encounter. “He told me his name is Darius.”

Katy’s expression clearly showed her regret over her actions. “Yes, I could hear some of your conversation.”

Not wishing to be judgmental, but still curious, John asked, “Why did you not want to speak to him?”

Katy sighed. “I don’t know……Wait, that’s not true.” She looked away for a moment and then turned back to John. “I didn’t want to interact with him because I could tell he had some kind of disability and that made me dismiss him as not being worth the effort.”

John was startled by her brutal honesty. “Apparently, that is the typical reaction to him.”

“Yes, I was in the majority – but, of course, the majority is rarely right about anything.”

“Well, I believe you’re correct that he has a disability, but we all have challenges that we deal with.”

Katy was touched by John’s willingness to treat Darius with dignity, and, because she appreciated how he’d interacted with the young man, she felt compelled to tell him.

“Mr. Hagar, I want you to know that I was impressed by how thoughtful and considerate you were to that individual. I just wish there were more people in the world who demonstrated that sort of genuine kindness to others.”

Still believing that he had not done anything worthy of her attention, he awkwardly replied, “Thank you……I appreciate it.”

Katy started to say something else, but she thought better of it. Instead, she wheeled around and took off at her usual brisk pace.

John watched her, thinking about everything that had transpired in the last ten minutes. It all seemed very strange, but once she disappeared from view, his thoughts moved on. He glanced at his watch and suddenly realized how tired he was from all the traveling. He was looking forward to a quiet relaxing evening.

A half-hour later, John checked in to his hotel, and when he opened the door to his room he immediately thought of Darius. As he stood looking at the beautiful accommodations, he couldn’t help but wonder where the young man from the subway was going to be sleeping that night.

 

***

 

The next morning, John climbed out of bed and took a quick shower. As he was getting dressed, he turned on the TV to hear some morning news. Thinking about the busy day ahead, he was not really paying attention until he heard the anchor say the words that made his pulse begin to race.

“The unidentified African-American man, who appeared to be in his early twenties, was found beaten to death on a subway platform, and although he was thought to be homeless, robbery is suspected as a motive.”

John lunged for the remote and turned up the volume, as the news anchor continued to read from the teleprompter. “Witnesses who have spoken to authorities said they recognized the man. They said he frequently rode the trains and hung around the platforms. Several also stated that they believed the man had some kind of disability.”

John suddenly became aware of his heart pounding heavily in his chest. He gulped for air and tried to make sense of what he was hearing, but everything seemed surreal. Despite the fact that the news report sounded exactly like the young man he met on the subway, he reasoned that in a city this size must be thousands of people living on the margins, men and women who were constantly pushed aside and forgotten. But then he remembered the money Darius had shown him, and his anxiety intensified. 

Even as he desperately tried to rationalize it away, John had a terrible feeling that the victim was indeed the gentle soul he had spoken to the day before. It made him feel sick to his stomach to think that someone would murder a human being for a handful of dollar bills.

He sat down on the bed as the events of the last eighteen hours rushed through his mind, and he was surprised by how upset he felt by the possible death of someone he didn’t know. Why should this bother him so much?

Suddenly an idea popped into his head. John grabbed his phone, did a quick search and found the phone number for the Post. He called and asked for Katy Pagett. When he was transferred to her desk, he left a message identifying himself and asking her to please call him back. He dropped his phone on the bed, realizing that it was extremely doubtful that she would return his call. But a short time later, while standing at the sink shaving, his phone rang. To his surprise, it was the reporter.

“Mr. Hagar, this is Katy Pagett. I assume you called because you’ve heard the tragic news.”

“Yes. That’s right.” Then cautiously, he asked, “I was just wondering whether or not you knew for sure that it was Darius.”

“Sadly, it definitely is. Within the last few minutes we received a photo from the police and there is no doubt. The press has already dubbed him as ‘The Subway Man’.”

There was a long silence on the phone and then she said, “I’m sorry.”

“Me too……Thanks for the information.”

Before he could hang up, Katy quickly said, “Please, Mr. Hagar, I need a moment of your time. I would like to try to do a story on Darius. I’m going to do some research, and when I write it up, I’d like to include your encounter with him – if you would agree to that.”

John thought for a moment and then said, “Okay. I would like to know his story, and it would be good to share it with others.”

Katy wanted to make sure he understood how the newspaper business worked. “I can’t promise that my editor will go for it. We pitch stories all the time and sometimes we get a yes and sometimes no. But first I’ll do all the background, and then I’ll see what he decides.”

“Okay.”

There was more silence as Katy tried to think of something comforting to say. “I don’t know if it helps to hear this – but I think in some small way you made Darius’ last day on earth a little better.”

She could tell by the tone of his voice he was not convinced. “Maybe, I guess.”

“I’ll be in contact with you.”

“All right. Goodbye.”

John stared at the phone in his hand. He sincerely hoped that the young man’s life story would be told in-depth, but for now, it seemed like he and Katy were the only two people on earth who cared that a young black male with a disability had been brutally murdered.

As he thought about their brief conversation the day before, he suddenly recalled telling Darius that we each find love when we need it. Now, as his words came back to haunt him, John hung his head in shame for lying to the young man.  

 

***

 

Two days later, on Thursday afternoon, Katy called again and informed him that her editor was still undecided on whether or not to do the story on Darius. She also told John that the young murder victim was to be buried the next day at 10:00 a.m. without a service. Katy gave him information regarding the burial site, and she stated that, if possible, she would try to attend.

The next morning was overcast with a strong threat of rain in the forecast. John took a cab to the cemetery and eventually found the open grave where the young man was going to be laid to rest. Other than a couple of workers finishing up preparations on the plot, he was the only person there. John had hoped there would at least be a member of the clergy present – but, apparently, Darius’ soul was not worth praying for.  

Several minutes passed as he watched the two men go about their sad work, but then his attention was drawn away by the arrival of another car. He watched as it slowly wound its way down the narrow road to a nearby parking spot. When the driver’s door opened, Katy Pagett stepped out.

As always, she walked over to John at a brisk pace. “I thought you might be here.”

John nodded. “It seemed like the least I could do.”

Katy glanced at the grave and sighed. “I’ve reported on many tragic stories, and witnessed a tremendous amount of human suffering, but it never gets easier.” 

She paused for a moment and then said, “Mr. Hagar, I’m sorry to have to tell you this – but even though I begged my editor to let me do the story on Darius – he refused. His explanation was both cruel and blunt. He said it wouldn’t sell papers. He claimed that the murder did not warrant an in-depth investigative piece because the public wouldn’t consider Darius important enough to care about. I told him that was the point. No one ever thought he was important – but his mind was made up, and he wouldn’t budge.”

John was disappointed but not surprised. “Well, I suppose he had no choice but to look at it from a business point of view. But thank you for trying.”

“I just feel like once again the world has failed Darius.”

“Yeah, in life and in death.”

Katy rubbed her forehead. “He deserved so much better……Life can be so unfair.”

“No argument here.”

“Still, I’m glad I did the investigation into Darius’s background.”

“What did you find out?” John wanted to put the young man’s life into some kind of context so he would be more than just a stranger on the subway.

Katy pulled out her phone and began to read from her notes. “His last name was Robertson. It turns out he was twenty-two years old. His mother was an alcoholic who drifted in and out of prostitution. Because of her addiction, Darius was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. His condition caused significant delays and a permanent intellectual disability.

“As he was growing up, he briefly attended school, but he struggled and soon quit. It is assumed he could not read or write.

“He never knew who his father was and his mother was in jail so many times that she eventually lost custody of him. Consequently, he was actually raised by his grandmother. However, she passed away about six months ago, and he has been homeless ever since.

“He did have one older brother, but he was killed in gang violence when Darius was very young.”

John was surprised by how emotional he felt learning even a few spare facts about the innocent man he had encountered.

Katy continued. “From time to time, he tried living in various shelters, but with his disability, he was a frequent target for all kinds of abuse. Virtually everything he had in the world was, at various times, stolen from him, and there were reports that he was beaten frequently.”

“So, he was no stranger to beatings. That explains the scars I noticed on his face.”

“That’s right……The police picked up three male suspects they believed participated in the murder, and one of the individuals quickly confessed. He stated that they all took part in the crime and that Darius was specifically chosen because he was vulnerable and seemed like an easy target.”

Katy hesitated for a moment and then decided to tell John everything she knew. “It has been determined that Darius died from blunt force trauma to the head. Apparently, he was beaten with some sort of metal pipe or rod. The autopsy revealed that his skull was fractured. The individual who confessed said they had planned to drag his body off of the subway platform and hide it, but there was so much blood, there would’ve been a trail – so, they just left him where he fell.” She paused and took a breath. “The man also told police that when they fled, Darius was still alive, and it sounded like he was crying.”

She watched as John’s eyes turned red. With his voice cracking, he said, “This is quite a world we live in. Instead of life being sacred, it seems disposable. I mean, to be beaten to death is such a terrifying way to die. It makes you wonder just what kind of brutality human beings are capable of.”

Katy looked over at the grave as the casket was being placed into position. “The individual that confessed to the crime is sixteen-years-old. The other two suspects are also in their teens.”

John shook his head in disgust.

“The teen told police that Darius was carrying seven dollars at the time of the attack.”

Softly John said, “Seven bucks. The price of a human life.”

Suddenly the sound of the inexpensive casket being lowered into the grave brought their conversation to a halt, and they watched in silence.

After waiting quietly for a minute, John asked a series of questions without expecting any answers, “Darius was a human being, a life like any other, but who will miss him? Who will notice he’s gone? Who will care?”

Katy didn’t know the answers, but she was absolutely certain that the two of them would never forget the young man. “Mr. Hagar, if you had not taken the time to talk with him, we wouldn’t be here. There would be no one to say goodbye. There would be no one to watch him be lowered into the ground.” 

“But to die unloved is a terrible thing.” ……John struggled to find the words. “My God, it is heartbreaking to think that in a world of seven billion people someone could be so utterly alone. No one should ever have to die alone.”

Katy sighed. “You’re right, of course, but, unfortunately, in my line of work, I see it all the time.”

“Do you ever get used to it or do you just become numb?”

“I suppose in a way you develop the ability to keep your distance so you can at least try to remain objective, but I almost feel like I knew Darius. I saw him so many times on the subway that it seems like we were acquaintances somehow.”

John didn’t understand how a reporter could continually see the worst in human behavior and not let it affect them. “It’s just deeply troubling to me that people believed his life had no meaning and that his existence didn’t matter.”

But in truth, Darius’ death had affected Katy. She had been overwhelmed with guilt ever since the murder because she had been one of those who’d continually turned away from a person in need.

With profound regret, she said, “That is what’s wrong with the world. We don’t care about each other. We don’t respect each other.” Then, with a catch in her voice, she said, “My God, we don’t even talk to each other.”

The two of them stood silently for a time, each one lost in their own thoughts as they reflected on how an innocent lost soul, who was desperately seeking some form of human contact, had briefly entered their lives only to be taken away by a horrific act of violence.

 

On the day Darius Robertson died, he was one of forty-nine individuals murdered in the United States. However, this lonely young man was more than just a statistic. His cruel death provided clear evidence of just how easy it is for us to deny the humanity of those who are vulnerable and at risk.

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