It's my first year of being out of college, living on my own in LA for Christmas, and it's hard. I have three jobs that I work at seven days a week, one of which is holiday retail, and I'm barely making my bills and surviving off of ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and lots of macaroni and cheese for dinner. One of the jobs I'm working is at an accounting firm as a file clerk/girl Friday, and I've been sent off, along with my best friend Stacey and her then-fiancee-now-husband Ben, to find authentic Mexican decorations for our company's Christmas party. And even though at the time I've been in LA for less than a year, I already know where to go: Olvera Street.
So off we go, the three of us, and Stacey wants us to take the Metro instead of driving. Okay, fine, whatever, we take the underground train, we get there, have dinner, shop for some party favors and leave fairly late at night. The train ride home is quiet, each of us resting and exhausted from the day, and the train stops, people board, and there's one girl in particular that grabs my attention: she is fairly intimidating in size, she is aggressive as hell, and she is obviously hopped up on something. Her friends provide her with an audience as she loudly berates and makes fun of every single passenger that makes eye contact with her. Nothing is off limits - their race, their clothes, they way they stand or sit - she aims to humiliate everyone who dares to cross her path. I ignore her and close my eyes, daydreaming of a sun-washed beach on a warm spring day.
An older man boards the train at the next stop and finds nowhere to sit, so he plants himself almost directly in front of me as he hangs on to the handle bars. In this tired, worn out man, the girl finds an easy target - his clothes are torn and faded, his hands grimy from a hard day of labor, his eyes cast down at the floor.
One stop goes by, and another, and then another as she continues to focus her taunts on this particular man. It's making the rest of us slightly uncomfortable now, as the man just stares up at her (she is almost twice his size) with confused and tired eyes. He shifts where he is standing, looks around the rest of the train at all the rest of the tired people who have spent the day holiday shopping in the cold and just want to get home. And as I have a perfect view of his backside, I am the only one who sees him pull out a knife from his back pocket.
It's one of those moments that you tell yourself, if that ever happened to me, if someone ever pulled out a knife and I happened to see it, I'd be totally cool, I'd be able to pretend like I never even saw it. Yeah, I could totally do that.
That's what I used to tell myself. Now I know better, because he turned ever so slightly towards me, to see if I'd seen it, and here I am, this barely out of college IDIOT, staring at the knife. I can't look away. I look at him. He looks at me. He looks at the knife. I look at the knife. We finally look back at each other.
His voice is quiet and tired and if I could put a voice to all of the exhaustion that I feel sometimes, it would sound like his.
"I work hard." he says, flicking the knife nervously. "I work hard and long hours and all I want to do is get home to my family and this is what I get?" He nods towards the girl, who has moved on to another unlucky subject and has yet to notice the knife. In fact, no one has noticed it except me, and I feel like I'm in a completely different universe from the rest of the oblivious passengers.
Think think think think think. Say something. Think. God, help me do this better. Think and THEN say something. Don't do it the other way around like you do all the freakin' time-
"I know," is what I end up saying. "I know you're tired. But you don't want to do this. It's not worth it. Your family needs you to come home tonight." I have no idea where I got those words, but I managed to choke them out.
He looks at me, and I look at him, and it has not even occurred to me for a second to be afraid of him. There simply isn't enough time. Years pass before he answers.
"Okay," he says, and that's it. He puts away the knife, the girl and her groupies get off at the next stop, and he gets off on the one after that. About three stops after that, I remember to start breathing again.
When someone asks me what I love most about the holiday season I have to admit that I don't say it's giving and getting the perfect present, which is what I used to say. The reason I love the holiday season so much is that for approximately one month, we remember that each and everyone of us is innocent. And as we see that innocence in each other, it is reflected back as our own innocence. We are all good people at heart, I really do believe that, just trying to get from one place to another, just trying to get home to our families at night, and even if we forget it the other 11 months out of the year, at this time of celebration we always remember how similar we all are, and how easy it is to love one another.