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Who knew a commute would parallel current events?

The following is a guest posting by C&EN Managing Editor, Robin Giroux

Last Thursday night I was riding the Metro home late, about 9 PM, after the last of the pages of the Nov. 21 issue of C&EN got to the printer and the files were prepared for delivery to the C&EN Online team. The subway car I boarded was pretty full, but I spied an empty seat and headed for it. The seat was occupied, though, by an older gentlemen who appeared to be asleep, perhaps drunk, perhaps homeless. I kept walking, found a seat further along, sat down, and started reading a book.

My stop is at the end of the line, and as we approached it, I heard someone talking to the older gentlemen, respectfully, asking did he have somewhere to go, had he eaten. It was a younger man’s voice: Could he get the older gentleman a ride to wherever he was going, could he buy him a meal. He was persistent. He told the older gentleman that he would see him safely home.

When I exited the train, I noticed the younger man helping the older one from the train, cajoling him along the platform, talking with him about where they were going next. A small group of young folks called to the young man that they’d see him later.

The next stage of my commute home is an express bus, and the last riders to board before the bus pulled away were the two men from the train. The younger man had learned the older gentleman’s name and was still peppering him with questions: Mr. Washington, have you eaten today? Is that a hospital bracelet? What were you in the hospital for, Mr. Washington? Do you have anyone at home? His tone was upbeat, even playful, yet still respectful.

I couldn’t hear Mr. Washington reply, but he had questions of his own. The younger man assured Mr. Washington that his friends would be waiting for him, that the only thing he had to do right then was see Mr. Washington home.

Other riders on the bus chatted with the younger man, surprised that the two weren’t known to each other. They confirmed Mr. Washington’s directions for the bus route past his home, but warned that the bus doesn’t run very often. If a taxi was available, the younger man said, he’d get Mr. Washington home that way.

I had my truck parked at the transit center where the bus route ends. It was late, I was tired, I’m a female and was alone, and the street Mr. Washington lives on is well out of my way home. I could’ve been a good Samaritan. I could’ve put my personal concerns aside and driven the pair to Mr. Washington’s home and the younger man back to the transit station. Instead I went home.

My reasons for inaction are defensible, I could argue, but they’re not really. I knew that the younger man would follow through so I convinced myself that I didn’t need to go out of my way, too.

So where do current events fit in? The congressional supercommittee charged with coming up with a plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years started announcing its reasons for inaction before the mandated deadline even arrived. Its reasons are no sounder than mine.

I’m confident Mr. Washington got home safely that night, with the respectful young man by his side each step, encouraging, playfully haranguing him to eat, to get the care he needed, to get a good night’s sleep.  And I’m impressed with that young man and his willingness to go so far out of his way to do the right thing.

I wish I were as confident that our leadership in Washington includes enough individuals who will go out their way, leave their friends, change their plans, and follow through cheerfully, doggedly, purposefully. This country needs them.

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