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Jewish World Review August 7, 2000 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

A racial incident on a train -- JUST AS the New Haven, Conn., train was leaving New York's Grand Central terminal, a white woman sitting next to me turned around sharply to listen to a conversation. The black conductor, who had been genially collecting tickets, was now standing next to a middle-aged white woman who looked confused.

The conductor was trying to explain to her that if she didn't have a ticket, or didn't have the money to buy one, he'd have to put her off at the next station -- 125th Street. That thoroughfare is in the center of Harlem. "It's the rule," the conductor said. "I have no choice."

The white woman beside me put down the romance novel she had been reading and said, to no one in particular, "He can't put her off on 125th Street!"

She rose and strode to where the conductor was still talking to the white woman who -- now that I looked more carefully -- appeared to have had a couple of drinks too many while waiting for the train.

My seatmate said loudly, "You cannot put her off at 125th Street! You cannot! She's in no condition to be put off the train!"

The conductor looked up, and said indignantly, "What's wrong with 125th Street? I put people off at that station all the time."

"Tell me," the conductor said to the woman, who saw herself as a good samaritan, "would you be saying this if I were letting a black woman off at 125th Street?"

In the crowded car, passengers had been talking or reading, but now everyone's attention was focused on the exchange taking place next to the seated woman, apparently without a ticket, who didn't seem aware of the controversy going on over her head.

"Would you," the conductor said again to the good samaritan, "have any objection if I were to put a black woman off at 125th Street? Why don't you answer that?"

The concerned passenger snapped back, "Yes, I would!"

"Really?" the conductor said derisively. "What you are really saying is that because 125th Street is in a black neighborhood, it's a dangerous neighborhood."

Without answering that question, the samaritan, looking down at the woman at the center of the discussion, asked the conductor, "How much is her ticket?"

He asked the woman at issue, "What's your stop?"

She looked up. "Darien," she mumbled. Darien is an upscale, predominantly white Connecticut town. "Twelve dollars," the conductor said.

The samaritan hurried back to her seat, opened her purse, rummaged through it, and took out seven dollars. She leaned over to several white passengers across the aisle with whom she had been talking before the train started.

They were paying close attention to the dispute and looked uncomfortable when the woman beside me asked them, "Any of you got a five? I must have left my other bag at the office."

Frowning, one of them handed her, without a word, a five-dollar bill. I hadn't noticed anyone else, including me, volunteering. It was as if we were all paralyzed in acute embarrassment.

The samaritan marched over to the conductor and thrust the fare at him. He punched out a ticket and handed it to the woman from Darien, who let it fall in her lap.

Just before my stop, I was standing next to the conductor. In front of us, an infant in a stroller was fiercely wailing. "At that age," the conductor, smiling, said to me, "you can't reason with them."

"I know," I, also smiling, said. "I've had four."

Getting off the train, I asked myself why I hadn't stood and backed up the sole samaritan. Well, because I knew why the conductor had been so angry. He felt that his entire community, his family and his friends, were being stereotyped. But the good samaritan didn't understand that.

And that was why the conductor wasn't able to acknowledge that the samaritan's fear of what might happen to the woman from Darien -- wandering drunk in Harlem -- wasn't necessarily due to racism, though it could have been. He, because of his life experiences, believed that it surely was.

But why had I been silent? Because I didn't want him to think that I was a racist?

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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