There are seven minutes until the next train, and I am standing on the platform with a homeless man, an older Turkish tourist, and a man in a business suit. Two of us take out our phones to pass the time. One looks at a book of maps. The other holds his cane and fumbles with something in his hand.
It’s a $20 bill.
There’s a strange breeze in the underground station, and a gust catches the bill right as the homeless man moves to place it in his pocket. The bill floats off the platform and onto the track. We pause. Then, as if in slow motion, all four of us lean and peer over the edge.
Now we watch: The homeless man grumbles and shuffles to the edge of the platform. He reaches onto the track with his cane, attempting to pull the bill toward him.
I am already setting down my bag and taking off my coat. Then I hop onto the tracks.
This is not something you generally are advised to do. The platform is about 4.5 feet tall, and there may or may not be electric current running through the metal rail. For what it’s worth, I am wearing boots with rubber soles but this, along with many other thoughts about safety, doesn’t occur to me until later.
I’m standing on the Metro track and only thinking about how much a stranger’s $20 is worth.
I pick up the very grimy bill and hand it up to the man who is looking at me like I’ve just performed a miracle. He keeps repeating, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I’m trying to say, “You’re welcome,” when it suddenly occurs to me that I’m not entirely sure how many minutes are left until the train comes—and that I don’t want to be standing on the track when I find out.
The Turkish tourist now has put down his book of maps next to my bag. As I place my hands on the platform’s edge, he extends his arms to help pull me up. “1, 2, 3,” he says. I jump on “3” and it’s not pretty, but I scramble to safety.
Like a gentleman, he helps me put on my coat. “You must have climbed trees as a girl,” he says. I laugh—I never was very good at climbing.
Now the homeless man is smiling from ear to ear, waving the $20 bill around. I wish he would just put. that. bill. away. He is telling me about his granddaughter. She is his prize, he says, but she always wants… … … …he keeps talking, gesturing with his cane. I always try to listen when homeless people talk—because I’m not sure that many people do listen—but this time I can’t concentrate. My legs are shaking; I’m not sure why. I smile.
The train is entering the station now. “You’d better hang on to that $20,” I turn and joke, raising my voice over the noise of the cars on the rails where I was standing a few minutes earlier. When I turn back, the man in the suit is standing right next to me.
“Thank you for doing that,” he says. “I watched the money fall, and I thought to myself that there was no way I’d get that bill for him—and then you did.”
Having stated the obvious, he looks at me. I’m not sure how to respond. It’s kind of awkward.
The train stops, and I look the man in the eyes.
“It was the right thing to do,” I say.
The train doors open.
“It really was,” he says. “Thank you for being a good person.”
We all get on the same car.