In Milan it’s pretty commonplace to have someone standing by the ticket machine in a metro station. From the machine’s side they can easily pester you for whatever change it spits out, and I imagine there’s probably even quite a lot of behind the scenes territorial skirmishes involved in seeing who is allowed to stay there.
Today an old lady was hovering by the machine of the metro station I entered, and I felt sorry for her as I drew near to buy my ticket. Of course you feel sorry for all of the beggars who are there, but she was older than any I’d seen before. And although I’d only glanced at her (as one tends to avoid looking at those that they are inevitably going to have to ignore), even in just that brief glimpse, I could see that there looked something a little kinder to her than did any of the others.
I shot her a brief smile as I approached the machine to buy my ticket. I don’t know what effect such smiles have on these guys, but I imagine or hope that – even if you are not going to give them what they want – at least acknowledging their presence and that they are a person may make their difficult job a little less shit. I’m not saying I’m some Mother Teresa for doing this, it’s just I only assume that it’s better than not giving them any money and also completely ignoring them. Though I also accept the likely possibility that they probably couldn’t give less of a shit about how I act unless they’re getting some coin.
She said Ciao, and I said Ciao back. She then interrupted me as I started to buy my ticket, asking me about where I was going. I told the beggar I was off to Cernusco, and barely looked in her direction as I said it. However if I had looked in her direction at that point I may have noticed then that her clothes looked very clean, and her make up was that of a lady who looked after herself, and that in fact there was nothing at all in her look nor demeanour that would ever lead one to conclude that she was a beggar, and in turn may have even concluded that she was not a beggar. But her location combined with the fact that she started talking to me as I approached the machine gave my brain all the information it thought it needed to decide what she was (in terms of self reference, it seems I separate myself from my brain when it makes mistakes).
She then handed me her day travel card, saying that she no longer needed to use the metro so I could take it and go home for free. I smiled and turned to her to try to say thanks, a movement to which she responded immediately by saying no, no, no, don’t worry, I don’t want any money, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was how I had acted that had made her think I suspected she was a beggar, or she knew that I would given where she was standing. I imagined it must have been some combination of the two.
Though when I began writing this post, its point was never intended to address the frailties in our judgements, and indeed still doesn’t. Besides from the ticket, the thing I was left with after the lady and I’s encounter was only an admiration for her thought. The lady had walked out of the station, seen her ticket was no longer useful, and instead of chucking it away had then instantly thought about how it could then be of use to anyone else.
I had a hard time imagining that anyone my age would do that. This is not to say generosity doesn’t exist in our generation; I have of course naturally seen far greater displays of altruism in many of my friends and peers than just the handing over of an unneeded metro pass. However it’s the thought behind it.
I wondered if this thought was reflective of some long lost set of values, one where the world didn’t owe you anything and instead you were raised to give back as much as possible, or, if it’s just because at a certain age you find it harder to be of use and therefore look to make the most of any opportunity that presents itself to do so.
I imagined that it probably ultimately came from the former, but was no doubt encouraged by the latter.
I wonder if us kids will ever give people our travel cards when we’re old.