When I moved to New York, I began giving up my subway seat to every woman, senior, and invalid I saw. Yet I frequently witnessed a scene that made my teeth clench: frail grand-fathers and expectant mothers hanging on to poles in a packed car, as fit young men sat, seemingly oblivious. There's a lot of talk these days about restoring civility. The idea and practice of deference—small sacrifices made to strangers in public places—is part of what's disappeared.

Deference serves a more important purpose, though, than the comfort of those who get seats. It is a recognition that we participate in humanity, whose common theme is age, frailty, and the trials of motherhood.

Snarling feminists often get the rap for doing in deference—at least toward women. But using feminism as an excuse for not yielding one's seat, as many men do use it, isn't keeping up with the times; it's just selfishness. Indeed, no woman has ever rebuked me for offering my seat, as sometimes happened a decade ago. At first surprised, most are grateful. Young men still sitting seem embarrassed. Some look at their feet; others offer their seats in turn.

Once I vacated my seat for an elderly lady. Before she could totter over to it, a young lout stole the seat. He refused to move and grew belligerent when I confronted him. Breathing into my face, he told me I'd have to remove him physically. Just then, several nearby passengers added their moral force and told him to give the lady the seat. He did.

Deference still lives in the hearts of city folk; the sentiment must simply be excited. Through schooling, subway signs, censure by friends, we teach people that such sacrifice is still expected and accepted.

But recently I had occasion to ask whether some small sacrifices are no longer tenable—because they are no longer so small. Strolling down Eighth Avenue in Chelsea with a friend, I stepped over a bum lying in the street, a puddle of thick blood forming under his head. By the time I called an ambulance, a small crowd had gathered. One passerby felt for a pulse; another tried to wake the victim, whose wound, a long gash, still bled. I got on my belly to look at the injury. I saw the cut would open further, and I smelled that the man reeked of booze.

Remembering old Boy Scout lessons, I applied pressure to the wound with my pocket square, stanching the gooey flow. People looked at me oddly. A fire truck soon arrived, and out jumped men in thick blue gloves, the kind used to clean up alien germs on The X-Files.

I panicked. Discarding the rag, I washed my hands in a nearby restaurant washroom until the skin wrinkled. Only then did I look carefully at the drunk—emaciated, pale lips, hair falling out, clutching a cane, and dressed like a clown. We were on a block with several homosexual clubs. I remembered the news stories of nurses and medical residents who'd gotten AIDS from the blood of infected patients, and I grew faint and sick. Only after a number of doctors reassured me did I calm down.

Boy Scout mottoes were written before AIDS. These are strange times, when doctors would counsel me not to assist an injured man. Perhaps in the future I would act differently: better him than him and me. But such pragmatism depresses me.

What sacrifice we owe to a stranger in distress has been long a subject of custom, as well as of common and maritime law. To a drowning man, tradition teaches, one must throw a line, not jump into the rough waves oneself.

Deference has survived feminism, despite all the buffeting it received, and it will survive AIDS. First, we must refuse to use threats to deference as excuses to stop making tiny sacrifices. We must keep before us the civic purpose of deference: to remind us that we have obligations to fellow citizens beyond the strictly legal. We can honor this idea in ways short of suicide, like calling an ambulance for a stricken man instead of stepping over him, and comforting the poor creature even as you fear to touch him.


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