BART and the Burrito
Today, I took BART from Union City to Ashby. A young white woman got on the train at Hayward. She was limping, wearing one shoe. She was wearing dirty clothes, she had a layer of dirt on her face. She looked tired. She sat at the very back of the train car. I was listening to music and she was sitting a yard or two away. I wasn’t paying much attention to her except for the occasional time when we locked eyes for a brief moment when I looked at the setting sun.
We went underground after the Coliseum stop and my attention was caught by the undeniable and delicious smell of a burrito. A man, sitting in front of her, had opened his dinner — a super burrito with what looked like all the fixings. He had taken a bite. I could see the woman perk up from her slouching. I looked away. I considered that I was hungry enough myself at the end of the day and thought that she must be very hungry, to be looking at the burrito like that.
At Lake Merritt, I looked up when the doors opened. She was eating the burrito. Inexplicably, I felt a sense of pleasant relief to see this. The man — who was likely a construction worker from the looks of his dusty hands and his clothes — had given her his food. It occurred to me then that there were good people in the world. This is not to say that I don’t know this, but only that I have been conditioned to expect hardened indifference, especially on public transportation, especially regarding folx who might be homeless.
She was taking big bites, the tortilla and its fillings seemingly shrinking in her hands because she was eating so fast. The man had a neutral look on his face. He wasn’t talking to her but was opening a pack of new earbuds — they looked like the cheap ones you find at Walgreens. It was clear he wasn’t rich. He had was probably been looking forward to eating that burrito but he had given it to the woman. It occurred to me that giving her the food was such a simple and basic act of not only kindness, but perhaps decency as well. It is decent to give someone food when she would otherwise be hungry. I was sad to consider how rare, if not shocking, this gesture is.
The woman continued to eat. She asked him if he had a bag. He gave her a plastic bag and she put the remaining third of the burrito in it. He wasn’t facing her; in fact, his back was to her. Someone giving away their dinner to a stranger on a train is not only kind but selfless. The man didn’t know her. He had no obligation. Still, he gave her his food.
As the train continued on from 19th Street, he drew a red and white pack of cigarettes from his pocket. When the woman tapped him on the shoulder and spoke, he only nodded and gave her not one, but two cigarettes. Still unsteady and limping, the woman shuffled off the train at MacArthur. The man continued to mess with the earbuds, taking them out of their plastic packaging. My stop was next.
What is baffling is that we have enough food to feed everyone but we have devised a strange system through which people cannot access that food. We have enough safe places to house people and yet people sleep on the street. We have medicine that cures many diseases but people continue to die from those very diseases.
I don’t think that we can solve large scale problems by giving burritos to strangers on BART. However, I do think that the mindset which led that man to give the woman his dinner is crucial to solving the large scale problems. We cannot be afraid to be generous with what we have, to be kind to those we see, to be willing to give up small comforts for a greater outcome. Seeing this very small but very human scene on BART today was a reminder to me that fundamentally, there is no reason not to work toward kindness and compassion on a daily basis.