Wednesday, January 20, 2010

When Invisibility Lets You Sleep

A little late, but a story to share:

During my evening commute on Tuesday and my morning commute on Wednesday, I boarded subway cars with sleeping homeless persons. In the former situation, the sleeper had commanded an entire bench. Though people were annoyed that space was compromised during the evening rush hour, no one harassed the man. We just all packed in a little tighter instead. In the latter, the man slept in a seated position, though he still occupied at least a quarter of a bench. (I'd approximate that to be the space occupied by three people weighing about 150 lbs each.) The homeless are invisible to members of the majority in most cases. In this instance, invisibility gave them a moment's respite from the cold. The presence of these two sleeping individuals also posed a challenged to their fellow riders: these individuals were most decidedly there, but this could not be acknowledged  by other riders because it would render them visible.  If they actually existed, if they were rendered real by recognition, perhaps require action. Invisibility permitted them to slumber on. They were both securely in position when I exited at my destinations.

(FYI: I've talked about the efforts of two homeless individuals to attain visibility previously in this post.)


  1. This is an interesting conundrum - riding an el train in Chicago last year, a homeless man who had been sleeping in a seat behind me started having a seizure, forcing us all to acknowledge him, ask him if he was okay and call for help. I remember the few seconds in which we all realized what was going on, and that one of us would have to make the first move - it was like a standoff.

  2. I've been in a similar situation. It's interesting that as soon as the "boundary" is broken, many people willingly follow suit. It's almost as though people wait to see if it's okay to step in and offer help. Or if the individual will actually respond to the acknowledgment. For many homeless individuals, being invisible means avoiding harassment and they work to remain that way.

    I haven't noticed that kind of hesitation with mainstream folks who weren't inebriated or otherwise incapacitated however. Last winter a woman slipped on some ice on Wall Street and went down on her knee. Within minutes, she was surrounded by people offering assistance. On the other hand, when coming home late at night on the LIRR, drunk revelers are often left to their own devices. If they get out of control, conductors hand them off to the police, who stay with them until they are sober enough to finish their journey alone.

    Thanks for sharing!