A few days ago, riding home on the train.
Here's the set-up: I'm sitting across from an upper-middle-class/late-middle-age guy who is reading a newspaper. Not the Times or the Journal. Not even the Post. One of the free newspapers. Metro, maybe. Standing a few feet away from the upper-middle-class/late-middle-age guy, near the train doors, is a lower-middle-class/ late-middle-age guy.
And yes, I'm totally judging these two guys by their clothing.
Upper-middle-class/late-middle-age guy (from here on out known as UMC guy) was dressed in a decent suit and polished leather shoes; lower-middle-class/late-middle-age guy (LMC guy) was wearing jeans, a presentable--but just barely--cloth coat and sneakers.
So UMC guy, sitting across from me, engrossed in his generic paper, was also listening to an iPod. I’m guessing either light rock from the 1970s or a cheap-o recording of a Beethoven symphony where the tempo is much too fast, a sort of Cliff's Notes of the Pastoral.
And LMC guy is hovering around the train door even tho there are plenty of available seats. It annoys me when people stand for several stops. I admit this is my issue, not LMC guy’s. Why, LMC guy, where you standing, when you had the chance to sit?
Anyway. UMC guy shifted in his marginally comfortable train seat, and a quarter slipped from his pocket. Pay attention. This quarter is important. Indeed, my entire waking life has been focused on this escaping quarter, which dropped from UMC guy’s shifting dress pants pocket and struck the train floor like it was the One Ring being dropped onto Bilbo’s rug. Well, not exactly like that--it had the weight of the One Ring, and the firm ka-thunk of it, but wasn’t as resolutely inert as the Ring. It rolled a bit. Fell flat near the door, roughly half way between UMC guy and LMC guy.
UMC guy was unaware that he was suddenly a quarter poorer. He was paging through the not-Daily News and tapping his toes to either the Eroica or ABBA. But LMC guy certainly noticed it. I watched LCM guy as he noticed it. With a blank face--and his face was long so there was a lot of space for it to be blank--LMC guy eyed that quarter, which landed head-up in front of the train doors.
At the next stop, a few people got on, a few people got off. And the quarter remained, stepped on but unmoved. Shocking. And since the quarter survived that one stop, LMC guy seemed to conclude that it was now his quarter. He stepped forward, stooped down, lifted it from the sticky floor, and shoved it into his coat's almost-gone front left pocket. He glanced sideways at me. And I weighed the moral implications.
I looked at UMC guy. Lost in his iPod-supported world of either cheap classical music or deep-cut classic rock, scanning the pages of the un-Sun, a relaxed smile spread across his paunchy face.
Which is worse: stealing the quarter, or interrupting the UMC guy’s private time? Who, besides UMC guy, knew what hellish reality UMC guy faced after leaving the train? UMC guy was content, ignorant, a lamb just before slaughter, a man full of beans before the inevitable process of digestion, relaxed and reading, isolated by music, sitting down, a few miles from work and a few more from home. UMC guy, a quarter poorer, needed a break.
And LMC guy had given UMC guy a full stop to reclaim that quarter.
So LMC guy returned to his persistent stance beside empty seats, his right hand jambed into his half-ripped coat pocket which concealed the quarter, and UMC guy turned another page of his forgettable paper, unaware of his incidental mugging.
The train clunked on, moving towards Marble Hill.
UMC guy shifted again just before 207th, and about a dollar-and-a-half’s worth of change made a break for it, leaping out of his pockets and spilling onto the floor. Pennies, dimes and even more quarters bounced and rolled around on the floor of the train. Perfect: the train's brakes squawked just as the change splattered.
LMC guy was in possession of a purloined quarter. He’d had the chance to return it, but chose to pocket it, for reasons of his own. UMC guy, who hadn’t noticed that first quarter fall, could not help but notice that all of his change was escaping. He put down his paper, leaned over, and began to retrieve the change, some of which ended up at the toes of LMC guy’s sneakers.
Now, I thought. This is interesting.
LMC stooped and collected the change. Almost fell as the train took the sharp turn pulling into 207. Balanced himself. Stretched and contorted and twisted. The train pulled to a stop, and LMC guy palmed all the change into UMC guy's cupped hands. UMC guy thanked LMC guy, smiled at him, returned the coins to his pocket, then turned his attention back to his paper and to his Donna Summer/Schiller/Beethoven combo.
Meanwhile, that first quarter, the scout for the other change, stayed put. LMC guy had been given two chances--each admittedly awkward chances--to return that quarter, but he didn't.