He may have asked strangers for help in vain, but he made us look at what we’re really made of.
I’VE SEEN him a few times on the subway in Toronto. He wanders from passenger to passenger with his crossword puzzle, saying nothing, holding the newspaper out in front of him with a questioning look on his child-like face.
He is tall, with smooth skin the colour of dark chocolate, his eyes and hair as black as pitch. He laughs often, a low cackle, for no apparent reason.
The first person he approaches usually refuses to look up. She’s probably thinking, Great, why do the morons always pick on me? He stands there, his crossword puzzle extended, waiting for her help. Eventually he gives up and tries someone else. This new person gets up and walks to the other end of the subway car. Crossword Puzzle Man follows him with his eyes, his lips parted in confusion.
It’s the same every time I’ve seen him. People shy away. They refuse to meet his gaze. Perhaps they are afraid of his strangeness, perhaps disgusted by his apparent retardation.
Here we sit, we Canadians, the people the world have dubbed "nice." We are always ready to help out a fellow traveller — offer advice on the best bus to catch, take time out of our busy day to give directions. And we feel proud at having been asked for our services, and good about out Good Samaritanism.
But not one of us helps out Crossword Puzzle Man. He wanders up and down the subway cars, waiting in vain for someone to offer assistance.
Who knows how long he has waited? Earlier, I would have said forever, but one recent morning, something happened.
It was not yet eight o’clock when I saw him. I examined the other passengers, wondering which one he would stop at: the secondary school girls on their way to class, a businessman looking anxiously at his mobile phone.
I was disappointed when he stopped in front of a wealthy-looking middle-aged woman wearing a fur headband, her makeup immaculate. She won’t like this at all, I thought. She’s too proper, too done up. She’s not used to dealing with public-transit-system wackos.
But there he stopped, his newspaper outstretched towards her, his eyebrows raised in question. I waited for the inevitable brush-off.
"Oh, hello!" she said cheerily, to my amazement.
He laughed his deep guffaw.
"How are you?" she asked, a smile forming on her lips.
Again, the laugh. I waited for her to look at me, to ask with her eyes what the heck was going on with this weirdo.
"I see you are doing the crossword puzzle," she said, smiling all the time.
He laughed in response and thrust the newspaper closer to her face.
She nodded and examined it for a few seconds. "One across. ‘Cosmetics brand, Mary blank.’ Do you know a makeup brand that starts with mary?"
He cackled low.
She smiled at him. "No? Do you know Mary Kay?"
He looked at her with lips parted.
"Kay. K-A-Y. You write that in. K-A-Y. Right there."
He laughed again and pushed the newspaper and pencil at her.
"You want me to do it?"
She wrote it in and handed back the paper and pencil. Again, he waited, lips parted, questions all over his face.
"Let’s see what two across is," she said.
They continued until it was time for her to get off. I looked around at the faces of the other passengers. They were filled with smiles. It was partly amusement, but there was something else, perhaps compassion.
Just as the well-dressed lady was preparing to disembark, it occurred to me what it was: It was admiration for the lady in the fur headband.
She taught us a lesson that morning. She taught us that Good Samaritans do not pick and choose whom they help. They offer assistance to anyone, even those who look different and act in ways we don’t understand. That means confronting out fears about those who live on the fringes of our society, in places we never visit or think about. She taught us that being a Good Samaritan means helping anyone in need.
Even Crossword Puzzle Man.
~ By Hayley Linfield, 《The Globe and Mail》 (11 Feb., 2004) Toronto