Take my peel. Please.

February 9, 2010

People seemed to be a fan of my subway story from my last piece… from what feels like months ago now.  Conveniently, shortly after I wrote that, I had another great subway experience, though this one is more pedestrian, I still think it’s neat.

I was sitting in a moderately full 6 train headed to one of my Upper East Side jobs, eating citrus of some sort – could have been a blood orange, could have been a clementine, could have been a grapefruit. This time of year I can usually be found with something Vitamin-C-ish in my hands.  Simultaneously, the fellow across from me – a very well dressed, business-suited, shiny-shoed, neatly coiffed Asian lawyer type – was eating a bagel out of a white paper bag.

We both happened to finish our respective meals at the same time, he left with his bag in his hand, me left with my peel.  I noticed his bag, and had the thought, how awkward would it be if I asked him if I could put my orange peel in his paper bag?  I mean… is it rude to ask a stranger to take your refuse from you, if they’re holding a refuse container?  I settled on yes. Definitely. And probably even giggled a little at myself that I had thought to do so.

But maybe a stop or so later, Mr. Lawyer caught my eye, waved his bag at me and asked if I would like to put my orange peel in the bag!  I smiled my usual talking-to-strangers smile, put the peel in and thanked him.  I was going to just let it go, but I couldn’t help myself.  After a few beats I looked up and said (startling him, in the way any New Yorker knows you can be startled even when a harmless looking stranger like me talks to you), “you know, I actually thought about asking you if I could do that, but I thought it would rude to ask a stranger to take my trash.”

He just sort of chuckled and went back to his reading, but it was the laugh I got out of the seemingly dozing lady sitting next to me that really nailed the experience home. The nature of the laugh was completely clear in its intention – she had thought the exact same thing. She had observed the 5 square feet of shared space the three of us maintained in this car, and made the same assessment we all had – that orange peel should go in that trash bag, and there’s no easy way to breech the subject.

Though when the lawyer got off at his stop he didn’t give me the “have a good one” or similar that I was hoping for – to really seal in this odd connection – I still got off the train beaming at the whole experience.

A favorite meditation teacher of mine, Sylvia Boorstein, said something at the last retreat I went on with her that immediately popped into my head after this experience.  We spend all this energy in life considering the big question, right? “What is the meaning of life?”  “Why the hell are we all here?” “Why does anything exist at all?” But in moments of connection with other human beings, those questions slip away. It’s not that they’re answered, they’re just not really there, they don’t take any mental prevalence anymore. The interpersonal connection matters enough, if just for that instant, that the big questions don’t have to.

I’m not saying this is any grand, spiritual occurrence, or that there’s any more meaning to it than a stranger being nice, I’m just saying comfort in this suffering, confusing, absurd reality can be found in small moments.  When the conductor of the G-train smiles at me as I wait for the F (two poles down from the bench, perfect location for F-to-6-transfer. Obviously.), or when the ladies at my laundromat tell me “yah yah. Just leave it, we know you, ready tomorrow, ok ba-bayeee,” or when someone I barely know at AA tells me she really likes my presence at the meeting, the other shit – if just for a millisecond, drops away.

We are interconnected beings. Everyone, everywhere has an effect on everyone, everywhere else; and no one anywhere doesn’t effect everyone.  This is an esoteric concept, but when compassion and kindness come close even briefly, I think that interbeing is the resonant force that brightens our suffering – if just for a fleeting moment.

But what do I know? I want to give my trash to strangers…



  1. When I was young I sometimes would drift into the appreciation of the possibility that everyone around me was a robot, and only my mind was free, and that in some sense the entire universe was a conspiracy to make me believe in it.
    But Ocham’s razor soon rushed in to save me from insanity… we are connected so deeply to each other, and not just in an esoteric, metaphysical way, but literally, through our neurons, or mirror neurons to be exact. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, it’s very short, but very sweet.

  2. Holy shit vim. ok first of all, that dude’s accent is like nothing I’ve ever heard in my life. Indian? Scottish? Middle American? I love it.

    But more importantly, I actually yelled “Shut the f&@* up at my computer screen twice while watching this, and immediately wanted to send it to like 50 people. what fantastic stuff!! It makes so much sense!

    I, too, had a similar thought growing up, what if I’m the only one who is actually alive, and all of this is just a ruse. I also used to question whether we were all actually speaking the same language, or if everyone was speaking completely different languages, but it just happened that we all HEARD things in our own language. Similarly with colors – are we all seeing completely different things when we see “Green” but we have created a system where it works out that we never realize it.

    What I like about all this too is that it removes the insidiousness of the expression “there is no truly altruistic act.” I remember when I first heard that, desperately trying to find an exception to the rule. But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter – nothing has to be truly altruistic, because nothing is separate, so any good act for another is a good act for you, and you feeling good about that act is good for the other. Because, as it goes, there is no other.

    I’m rambling, but mostly because I’m so excited about that TED talk. Thank you so, so much for passing along.

    • Preach.

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