As it happened, I had just started rereading Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad’s great novel about a young sailor who confidently anticipates a life of adventure and heroism. Adventure arrives, sure enough, when Jim’s ship collides with debris in the middle of the Arabian Sea and threatens to sink. But heroism proves harder to secure: in the moment of crisis, Jim leaps into a lifeboat, abandoning the ship and its hundreds of passengers—a moral failure for which he spends the rest of his life atoning.
I was riding a different kind of vessel, the Q train underneath Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, when adventure arrived, also of a different kind. A disheveled elderly man was seated next to me, his head and chest slumped over a walker with wheels. From the walker dangled a cane. The man might have been unconscious, for all anybody in the subway knew. But New Yorkers don’t interfere with the many specimens of human misery we see throughout the city. We assume that they know what they’re doing—that the conditions that seem miserable to us have become painless second nature to them.
And so far, we passengers were justified, because the elderly man wasn’t unconscious. At the Seventh Avenue stop, he rose unsteadily and pushed his walker toward the train’s open door. I wondered how he was going to maneuver the thing over the gap between the door and the platform. But I didn’t get up to help him; I only watched—as the walker lodged in the gap and the man plunged forward, over the walker and onto the platform, splitting his forehead open on the concrete and drenching it with blood.
At some point, even New Yorkers help the miserable. A few of us wrestled the walker out of the gap, got the man seated on a bench, and called an ambulance. He sat there for ten minutes before it arrived, mopping his bleeding head with paper towels that we secured from the subway attendant, saying nothing except to tell us his first name and to thank us when we told him that help was on the way. We stood there awkwardly and uselessly, watching the blood soak through the towels and drip onto the platform. Perhaps the medics got through the Brooklyn traffic as quickly as they could, but those ten minutes were more than enough time for us to wonder what would have happened if the injury had been worse. Would a man with a bigger gash have survived? With a seizure? With a heart attack?
The medics, after they arrived at last, were cheerful and confident as they patched the man’s forehead with gauze. We had a moment of panic: Were they going to leave him there? Would we have to help him get home, if indeed he had a home? But no, the medics took him to the hospital for stitches, and we assured one another that he would also get “services” of some kind there—the attention of a social worker, maybe. Never had I been so grateful for the welfare state. What, after all, could be a better use of taxpayers’ dollars than feeding the truly hungry, housing the actually homeless, and helping the wretched whose suffering is ignored by us busy, careless citizens? And how distant those noble tasks are from, say, the federal program that spent over $2 billion last year to bestow cell phones on the poor, or the public housing that traps low-income citizens in long-term dependency, to name just two examples of many.
The medics carried the man away, and we boarded the next train, consoling ourselves with the thought that we hadn’t boarded the subway prepared for a moral test. Nobody had instructed us to help the elderly man as he struggled toward the door. Nobody had warned us that our lazy assumptions about the capabilities of the miserable would be proved wrong this time. We hadn’t been ready.
Conrad understood just how little that defense was worth. “It is all in being ready,” Jim pitifully says to another character, Marlow, as he begins to tell his story. “I wasn’t; not—not then. I don’t want to excuse myself; but I would like to explain.” And Marlow later remembers: “It was solemn, and a little ridiculous too, as they always are, those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be.”