Metro Ethics 101

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

This morning on a stalled 7 train, tacked sideways to the lip of the Hunter’s Point station, I attempted to tune in to long-latent psychic powers. I tried magic. We had spent perhaps three minutes dangling on the roller-coaster-curve of track outside 5 Pointz, and the conductor hadn’t yet made that typical-conductor-in-traffic-move of yelling the obvious. During this suspended time, I became convinced we were stranded because – just around the river bend – track-workers had found Avonte Oquendo. They were pulling him up out of the darkness, just as I twiddled my thumbs. He was gaunt and frightened, but whole. In a matter of seconds, my train would slide into the station and I’d see him there on the platform, huddled in blankets via some handy samaritan, his fingers splayed around a mug of cocoa. A jolly team of New Yorkers would be sighing and smiling at their lost one’s return home. There’d be a parade. Maybe we’d sing.

This wasn’t, in fact, the scene at Hunter’s Point (of course it wasn’t). The train delay was just a signal failure. A whipsmart Google search at 125th street confirmed that I’m no witch, I possess no third sight; I’m just a dreamy slave to public transportation, like you. I know now that there is still a lost child moving or not moving somewhere around New York City proper. I mean, one I know about.

For the uninitiated, Avonte Oquendo is an autistic fourteen-year-old who went missing from his school in Long Island City more than a month ago. He “cannot communicate verbally.” Three different pictures of his face are plastered across every subway station I’ve entered in the past thirty days. The signs continue to multiply. They are every few paces at Grand Central Station. They weep down the walls all over public buildings in Sunnyside and Long Island City – where I live, where police bloodhounds most recently traced the boy’s scent. There’s currently a $90,000.00 reward offered for his safe return.

Avonte’s family have told reporters that he’s run away before, and his fascination with trains have led him toward subway tracks; accordingly, the MTA halted track maintenance several weekends ago in order to scour some 468 stations. Police commissioner Ray Kelly maintains that since the flare went up, transit workers across the city begin every single shift with a thorough search for Avonte, so perhaps it’s not so far-fetched, my dream scenario of somebody’s subway heroism. Such city-wide hullaballoo conspires toward a feeling for me, a superstitious conviction that all of New York is holding its breath.

Here is a fact from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: the first three hours of absence are the most crucial time towards the recovery of a missing child. This is because – while “the murder of an abducted child is rare…a 2006 study indicated that 76.2 percent of abducted children who are killed are dead within three hours of abduction.” Another number for you is 2,000 – that’s the number of children that go missing every single day. This statistic is demi-mitigated by the fact that a missing child can be anything between a runaway, an abductee, or a child who’s been held by a non-custodial parent for too long a time…still, a non-family abduction – as could be the case with Avonte – occurs 58,000 times a year in the states. The macabre imagination runs wild.

There’s no evidence that Avonte was abducted – his history and condition actually suggest that he’s lost. But I’ve already noticed myself painting a kind of cinema narrative on this case – I am about as invested in his retrieval as I am when I watch horror movies. It’s an alert brand of sympathy; one tinged with a dark self-interest (for this possi-perpetrator could be out for my family, too…) but diluted by perceived distance. That personal reaction is of course the point of the missing posters; I am meant to consider Avonte’s absence and motivate to action because I must see this face and contemplate its whereabouts thirty times a day. Yes, that’s right – this morning I’ve been from 40th Street in Sunnyside, Queens to East Williamsburg, Brooklyn off the L; I’ve taken two trains and walked ten blocks, and I’ve seen no less than thirty-three signs for this boy. I’m convinced such relentless imagery takes a lingering, peculiar toll on an average Joe, and imbues me, witness, with a kind of responsibility. And not the attitude of vague pity, like we feel when reading of Syrian turmoil – this has been an inescapable confrontation. A movie with no end in sight. An assault of the senses.

Better put: Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, on the affronting power of war photos – “photographs of the victims…are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.” The advent of the photograph has conscripted our hearts into a nationalistic empathy before, and often – think of the war cries a united set of states made when asked to consider pictures of Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden, when asked to put faces to any of “our” enemies. Think of the tortured victims at Abu Ghraib. Images, these grim reductions, can contain all the heft of a distant concept (kidnapping, death, children, fear) but retain all the closeness of something (or someone) familiar. It’s awfully hard to reckon with even an imagined cruel scenario when it’s written into the contours of a sweet-looking kid’s school photo. And I feel things because I am made to see. I’m telling you what you already know, now – pictures are worth a thousand words.

So I keep my eyes open. I “do what I can do.” Mostly, this means I fret, I chew my lip with concern. I run wild with Avonte’s story for the sake of a mental exercise, blowing up a little boy’s pain for the dubious intent of a pop-philosophy treatise. Then, I self-flagellate. I wonder what I might really do, might have done in the active task of looking for Avonte. In my dreaming mind I am calling the police with tips, I am out there volunteering with the search party in the mud. Nope, nope, scratch all this, finally – once the posters are out of sight – I am hoping for the best. I am moving on with my day.

It gets more and more difficult to even hope for the best while the numbers tick up; the statistics screech their cruel truth with every passing day. So, like a good moviegoer, I begin now to release myself from the full hold of my investment; I begin to truly look away. Like a moviegoer, my nervous morning commuter, my average concerned citizen, my sympathetic-when-convenient soul craves mostly that most obnoxious pop-psych buzzword: closure. Any kind of ending, now.

I assume that most people go through a similar set of machinations when confronted with tragedy, or implied tragedy. (I hear there’s a psychic scale, with five stages.) We wonder and wonder about our own role in an event, then must settle for small, meaningless dollops of self-congratulating empathy…for aren’t we far, and futile? And didn’t we do our best, feeling a little sad for a little while? And after we’ve shared the sad little scrunched face the other commuters (you know, the look that lets the people around us know we too have feelings, we too sing America) – we have to feel better. Because it’s a productive habit to drown the personal in the statistic. To lift out of grief, we obliterate the others’ pain in anonymity. Our hearts are only so big, after all; and unless we really want to strap in for Teach for America or a life of civil service, room must be made for the near and dear before the unknown – hell, teachers and public defenders must know this better than anyone. Basically, if I let myself get too sad about Avonte, I may as well get too sad about everything. I feel until I can’t afford to. Some things – I must tut – just can’t be helped.


Yet here’s the rub – in a metropolis (in other words, a place chock full of pictures) the statistic won’t go quietly. Pain is never anonymous. You and I see differing shades of urban strife a thousand times a day, as opposed to only from the vantage point of a newspaper front page. You and I get pressed up against those often theoretical-feeling constructs of crime, poverty and danger every day, on the 6 and 7 and L and J trains. And even if you’ve come to be savvy with the dispensations of your presumably hard-won sympathy or spare change, if you’ve developed a template by which to judge who needs your help/eye contact/ attention the most out of a constellation of blight you’ll see in your average 24 hours…you can never be quick enough. In seeing each victim you are forced to choose again and again whether or not to be affected by this one, this seven year old breakdancing for change on the train, or this mother forcing a sign into your face describing in detail her child’s disease. Some idiot math, for your files: if pictures are worth a thousand words, live people are worth a gazillion paragraphs.

Mr. Emmanuel Levinas has a term for this work: the encounter. He subscribes to the idea that we are all of us de facto constituted by the people around us; we exist because we see an other and respond to their call. We exist because of – and therefore, for – other people. What could be trotted out as an argument in defense of the worst kinds of humans (high school girls) is actually kind of sweet on further inspection: if I live because I see you and vice versa, considering your conflict is not necessarily ‘altruism,’ it does not smack of ‘innate human goodness.’ What seems like ‘caring for another person’ might just be a fastidious application of the Golden Rule – for if I look out for you, you will look out for me. Which is to say, the notion of ‘good looking out’ might in fact be the same as a highly developed sense of self-preservation.

So a metropolis asks its inhabitants to care for strangers as a logistic prerogative – take this semi-upsetting drift of subway hypothetical that’s probably happened to you: approaching me now is a loud person begging for change, telling a woebegone life story in three rehearsed sentences. It might make me feel better for a moment, but there is also this selfish prerogative: if I give a penny, or a minute of my time, I may yet gain what I always crave most from this city, that thing that’s hardest to find here. Even ephemeral solitude. Space. In New York, we practically have to wade through other people – people in pain – to get where we’re going. Doesn’t it behoove us to see them on the way?

I have never been to most of the rest of the world, but I do know there are spots where this active encountering is not the norm –any place where you drive, say. You drive and you can kind of flee the uncomfortable, whereas on the subway you are trapped; straight up jammed up against the world’s B.O. where no faith can save you. In a place with space one can always create distance, one can leave: and on the flip side, while you might be farther away from your neighbors in rural Idaho, you likely won’t ever see the same envelope under their door every night for a month and have to actively force from your brain the passing worry that they’re dead, rotting away against the wall you share. And if your neighbor’s not dying in a technically shared space, you won’t be at least emotionally implicated when something bad happens to someone physically near to you… and in this city, everyone is physically near.  If the imagined tenant in 6G did happen to turn up dead tomorrow, I’d cope with that guilt for the rest of my life, even if I wasn’t retained for police questioning. Only now, when forced to recognize the closeness, the inconvenience of another’s possible pain, I wash-rinse-repeat that initial cycle: fretting, and wishing, and feeling, and leaving. Potentially I “really see” an evil when I am forced to, but still I end up back in the mind’s movie theatre — sad for a while, but ultimately helpless, hopeless, feeling somehow bound to a seat.

Supposedly, I moved to this city because I wanted to be around people. I wanted to see the sights and smell the smells. I even bought the notion that I’d find and flirt with danger here, though it turned out I was reading brochures from the 70s in that case. I watched the movies, I listened to the Rent soundtrack, I did these things because being an artist and a hustler meant this life would be romantic and courageous only if lived out loud. Only if seen and adored by millions.

So in a way, I figured I’d spend my days here on trains sandwiched between a mariachi band and a quartet of breakdancing eighth graders. I figured I’d derive from this sharing spirit a kind of full angle on all walks of life, that I would witness everyone and in turn they’d witness me…but here’s the thing: this life is not a movie. There is no closure. People do not exit and enter neatly. The Oquendo family may never see their son again, and why? Because there is also no magic. Because some things are just sad. The intersection of these truths may be responsible for most lovely art, but that doesn’t make “art” (read: the personal essay) action and it doesn’t make art “noble”, not  in and of itself. So bully for you and I and Jonathan Larson and diddly-squat. 

The copy on some new MISSING posters underlines that huge fact of the Oquendo case: this little boy cannot care for himself. He cannot communicate verbally. He has a definitive need to be found, and the city has not found him – that means we have failed. If nothing else, I do want to underscore the WE of the failure. Regardless of pragmatics, of can’s and can’ts, promises, pledges, limits, best intentions, we are responsible. It might seem a small project, this looking up and really seeing someone – but its failure is implicating and vast, especially in a city with so many faces. We have to look out for each other. We have to look out for each other. We are small and they are small and we might fail and it’s all very uncomfortable, but one cannot shut one’s eyes to the fact of these things, the hurt of them. To notice is the absolute least of the exercise. 

I wish I was braver. I wish I would wake up tomorrow and call the rescue team. I want to be the one to pull him safely out of the tunnel, see him reunited with his waiting family. I want so fully that “illusion of consensus,” that world where we all notice each other enough to prevent all the awful things that happen. I want to encounter all of it. And I don’t want struggle as a mental exercise or struggle as escapism or struggle as schadenfreude. I wish we would all sit down for a minute and get too sad about everything, because most of it deserves our concern.

In practice, this means only that I fret. This means I — like you! — remain an imaginative slave to the MTA. This means I chew and chew and chew my lip with concern, until I get off the train, until I shut my front door behind me, until I’m safe and sound at home.  

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