Seven o'clock am: The commute routine. The train arrives. On the platform, you tactically position yourself to be at the doorstep, when the doors open. The objective is to board first and not have to negotiate a coveted seat. The key is to act nonchalant, not to rush in and beat some lady to a choice seat, and risk a reproaching look and be judged uncouth. On a lucky day, things go your way: You get your window seat, make yourself comfortable, hoping not to have to endure the company of a neighbor in the adjacent seat for the duration of the ride. But in fact, on most days you are not that lucky. Somehow and out of nowhere, someone will nudge her way in front of you at the very last minute, mysteriously followed by a couple of others, taking advantage of your civility. And there goes your chance to occupy a choice seat! You get an aisle seat at best.
Socializing on the way to the workplace is out of place. A train car during rush hour is not a joint where buddies hang out, nor should it be mistaken for a place where brotherhood and fellowship flourish. It is by no means the Fellowship of the Well-Intended Riders, Ltd or the Fraternity of the Altruistic Commuters, Inc. You will not see the reader of a best-seller, in a spirit of altruism, open up the book so as to share its content with a neighbor. Riders are not united by a common bond. The only thing they have in common is a certain expression marked by the angst of another day at work, of challenges old and new awaiting them. Look around and meet these I-am-not-in-the-mood or don't-mess-with-me faces, who would rather be somewhere else, if it weren't for their mortgage, kids in college, health care needs. To trump that angst, riders resort to reading, crossword puzzles, or the popular number puzzle, Sudoku. Most commuters don't want to be bothered by a talkative neighbor. (Whoever said man was a sociable animal was not talking about commuters. If they had their way, they would rather have their briefcase or handbag as their neighbor in the next seat over.) For the sake of decency, they painstakingly endure the first few niceties of an exchange, but"to thwart any chance of a conversation"they quickly bury their faces in a newspaper or a book, or pull their now ubiquitous laptop and start banging away at their keyboard, or plug both ears with an iPod device or a cell phone. For others, it is a chance to catch up with their sleep"such as that guy with the specialty of curling his body in a posture reminiscent of his days as a fetus in his mother's wombs (perhaps was he nostalgic of such days), bringing both knees upward to rest against the back of the seat in front of him. Ladies of a certain age do their quilting, knitting or crocheting. On occasion, you may see a couple of people having a chat; they must be neighbors or co-workers who could not avoid one another. Suffice to say that a train car is not the type of tightly-knit organization, a confrrie where you can apply for membership!
That morning was one of those where I ended up in an aisle seat. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Except that one guy got busted for committing one of the cardinal sins of commuting--from the corner of his eyes he tried to catch a glimpse of his neighbor's paper. Somehow the neighbor sensed the subterfuge, turned a scolding eye at the usurper and changed his angle to foil any attempts by the latter to further engage in his parasitic behavior. Other than that, it was an uneventful commute... until the lady next to me, who had been staring out the window, received a phone call.
"Hello", she said, "Speaking", she went on after a short silence..."The doctor said it's OK for her to go to school, as long she keeps her foot elevated", she paused, pondering the reaction at the other end of the line.
"But I did ask him and he said it was fine!" She paused again. Then, with a sharp tone of voice, she pounced:
"You want her to stay out for two weeks, is that it? Are you telling me that you cannot provide accommodation for her to keep her foot elevated?" she asked, waited for an answer, then charged:
"In that case, I want to speak to somebody else...," she stopped short, apparently being interrupted."That's fine! They got my number. Make sure someone competent calls me." She ended the call.
A short while thereafter, the phone rang.
"Yeah!" she answered, then paused. "I don't understand your concerns. The doctor told me, all she has to do is keep her foot elevated and she should be fine. What's the big deal? I will have to talk to the district about that." She paused again, this time a little longer and then erupted:
"Know what! I'll tell you what to do with it: Shove it up your (expletive)!" And she hung up.
Seconds later, she dialed a number. The tone noticeably changed.
"Hi, Sweetie, the school won't allow Megan to set foot in the building." Pause.
"C'mon, it's not that they have to follow regulations; they just do what they want to do, these idiots." Pause.
"Well, whatever!" she said dismissively. "I know you're running late. Can you drive by the school, pick up her up and take her to Grandma's?" she asked.
"I know. You don't have to stay. Just drop her off, will you?" Pause... "Sure, I'll call her. Luv yah!"
She ended the call, then dialed another number.
"Yeah, it's me. How're you? Can Megan come over?" Pause...
"Well, you know, she had that stupid accident yesterday; her foot is in a cast. The school refuses to let her in..." she stopped as though she was interrupted.
"Sure! The doctor gave her a note. The note says she may return to school in ten days." Pause...
"But I did ask him and he said OK, as long as she can keep her foot elevated"but he didn't put 'it down in the note. And, of course, you know, these incompetent jerks at school won't understand..."
"Anyway", she went on, "Brian is bringing her on his way to school. He's already running late. Thanks! See you later."
One could tell that the pushy lady tried to twist the doctor's arm and get him to put her "special" request in the may-return-to-school note. One could also see the doc resist:
"Listen, Lady, ain't gonna put nothin' down on paper. Think I'm crazy? You wanna send your daughter to school, that's between you and the school", the doc could have retorted.
Well, actually, it is very unlikely that the prestigious MD would have used such trivial language. His objection would probably go like this:
"By virtue of the Hippocratic Oath, holding me to the highest degree of ethical conduct, I must advise you that this fracture--though benign in appearance, as it has superficially broached the shin--has the potential of developing into a cassure, should the bone come in contact with a contondant object. A school environment is highly conducive to such an occurrence. To obviate this eventuality, in my opinion, it's best to keep your daughter out of school for ten days."
"With my malpractice premium going to the roof, do you think I'm going to take a chance with your brat and her rowdy buddies at school, and put my license on the line? Next thing I'll know is that I'll have to respond to a lawsuit. No way, Jos!"
That said, in some ways, I empathized with that mother. In a work environment decimated by restructurations, downsizings or rightsizings--where jobs are redefined, positions phased out or consolidated to achieve economies of scale"it is not hard to imagine the pressure the workplace subjected her to. She probably could not afford to take any more days off, whether she ran out of time from her leave pool or she did not see it wise to disrupt the fragile equilibrium in the office by taking a few more days, at a time when deadlines were approaching. Imagine she was one of those highly flexible employees cost-conscious executives tend to depend on to make up for headcount loss arising from reorganization or attrition. Moreover, imagine it was quarter-end and financial statements were due to the parent company so it could file its 10-Q or honor its conference call with Wall Street analysts"any delay in that regard could potentially wreak havoc on the company stock price, which could have devastating consequences.
On the other hand, work pressure notwithstanding, the abuse the school administrators suffered at the hand of that mother was unjustified. They were only following guidelines and procedures established by their own workplace. That exchange points to one of the challenges public schools face"lack of parental support, which oft-times translates into lack of respect for school regulations and officials by the students, and into an environment detrimental to learning. It is doubtful that the mother would have used such heavy-handed tactics and colorful language vis--vis a parochial or a private school. However, against her daughter's public school she figured she had enough leverage to make "these idiots" bow to her whims...
And, all the while, she showed absolutely no regard to this fellow commuter in the next seat over!