Throwing Rosa Parks From the Train

The train conductor resembled how Lee Harvey Oswald might have looked in late middle age: white, wiry, angry-looking. He prowled rather than strolled the aisles as he took our tickets, wearing the wary and ready-to-shoot face of a cop looking for an escaped felon in an abandoned building.

The passenger was also middle-aged, but black, dreadlocked, overweight, and surrounded by nondescript shopping bags. Was she homeless, or just tired and disheveled? It was hard to tell.

I didn’t notice her until the conductor asked for her fare and she produced a bus token. What happened next still haunts me.

This was about a year ago when I was visiting my mom in suburban Philadelphia. I was on the SEPTA commuter train from her home in the leafy community of Jenkintown to its terminus at the Philadelphia airport, where I’d catch a plane home. The train went through some tony neighborhoods and some rough ones: Fern Rock, Wayne Junction, Temple University. The passengers were similarly diverse, and included sedately dressed matrons, people of all colors in casual weekend clothes, couples lugging toddlers in expensive strollers, tough-looking youths with headphones that did not totally drown out their music. All were minding their own business and lost in their own worlds as the train chugged towards its three stops in downtown Philly and to the airport.

I was thinking about going home, and feeling relieved that I had barely remembered to stop at an ATM for cash before I had stepped onto the train; otherwise I would have had no money for my fare. The conductor’s voice behind me woke me from my own reverie.

“Ma’am that token doesn’t work on this train,” he said loudly.

“But it’s a SEPTA token,” the passenger pointed out.

“I’m sorry, the fare is $7.50,” he said bluntly. “The tokens only work on the bus.”

“But I don’t have $7.50!” she replied. “All I have is this token.”

“Well, you will have to get off at the next stop,” Lee Harvey answered.

The passengers looked up from their Philadelphia Inquirers, from their IPhones, from their toddlers, and looked at one another incredulously.

“I’ve got to get to work,” pleaded the passenger with the token. “I’m a nurse and my shift begins at three.”

“I don’t care if your shift begins at three,” the conductor snarled back. “You need to pay the fare or you need to get off the train.”

He walked away from her for a second, and the couple in the seat behind me pulled out some money. The man stretched his arm wordlessly across the aisle, his offering in his outstretched palm. The conductor’s head whipped around and his face became angry.

“We don’t allow panhandlers on this train,” he said to the woman with the shopping bags.

A small vapor of disgust suffused the train, as passengers murmured among themselves, clearly not happy with the conductor’s attitude. The man behind me spoke up, in a respectful tone, to make it clear that he had offered the lady the money unasked. Another passenger, a black man, walked to the front of the train and tried to talk quietly with the conductor before turning around and stalking angrily back to his seat.

“I’ve got to get to my shift,” the lady with the bags kept saying. “I’m a nurse.”

In the front of the train the conductor was brandishing his radio. He contacted the Philadelphia police and asked for them to be waiting for the train at the next station, Wayne Junction. I heard him say that he was putting a passenger off the train.

The train pulled into Wayne Junction before the police. We sat there for several minutes. The passengers fumed silently. Finally, the black man who had tried before to intervene got up again, angrier this time.

“Excuse me sir…don’t you think this is a little excessive?,” he irately asked the conductor, who just shrugged.

We sat there some more, and mingled with my anger at the situation was the very real fear that I would miss my plane if this dragged on. I tried to squelch it and meditate on the thought that I was witnessing an injustice. Or was I? That train traveled through some dangerous neighborhoods, and I am sure that the conductor had dealt with some tough characters before. Maybe Lee Harvey Oswald was really a guy who had simply become jaded from the situations that arose on his train. The passenger could have been a vagrant, maybe somebody he had dealt with before.

Or she maybe she was just a harried nurse who ran out of time to groom herself before she got on the last train that would get her to work on time. Regardless of what she was, I concluded that she deserved the benefit of the doubt, and clearly other passengers did too, or they would not have offered to pay her fare or reacted the way they did.

Nobody said anything more as we waited. Finally three police officers came on board. They spoke gently to the lady who was maybe a nurse or maybe a vagrant. With a sigh she stood up, gathered her bags and walked heavily up the aisle with them, then stepped off the train. I felt the rumbling of wheels as the train began to move and I checked the time, relieved that I would definitely make the plane.

It was only later that I remembered that I almost had boarded the train myself without any cash. How would the conductor have reacted to a well-dressed white woman with an empty wallet? Would he have smiled and given me an address where I could mail a check for the fare when it was convenient? Or would he have put me off the train at Wayne Junction?

I felt angry at myself for not speaking up, for letting this woman get marched away even though others had offered to pay her fare. I was angry for letting thoughts of missing my plane overshadow the outrage that I was witnessing. How many of us chat about social injustice over pinot grigio in our comfortable homes but look the other way when it stares us in the face? How many of us don’t risk speaking out because it might make someone uncomfortable, angry or inconvenienced? On a holiday celebrating history’s most iconic champion of Civil Rights, it’s something worth pondering.