The Shanghai Metro

by Dan Plunkett

I hate to admit, lest my inner nerd leave the dungeons and dragons game that occasionally occupies too much of my brain, that I have a weakness for Internet memes. For reasons beyond my comprehension, LOLCats are particularly funny to me. Maybe I like them because of the two retarded cats that I have back in Houston. I could create a whole website based on their obese hijinx alone. Maybe it was just because all the LOLCats are so adorable. There is, however, one LOLCat that came to mind the minute I stepped foot on the Line 2 train that day. A black cat, his wide green eyes completely open, staring off to the right side of the screen in a horrified manner, while the caption below read: what has been seen cannot be unseen.

It’s never been easy to ignore those in need. All of my life, my parents had taught me to be a compassionate Christian, not just the kind who attended church on Sunday, but the kind who actually felt guilty about the suffering of others. The phrase: what goes around comes around, and whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me, emptied my car of change on more occasions then I’d care to count. It wasn’t until the financial crisis hit that I adopted a new philosophy: man, fuck them. I gotta take care of myself. As the crisis worsened, my views on helping the less fortunate hardened into feelings of anger. Why should I give up my hard earned money for these crack heads? They’re going to go buy blow, they’re not going to use my money constructively. I often found myself coming up with angry excuses. Most of my friends opted to carry food in their car for the homeless. My approach usually involved the finger.

Whenever there was an accident back home, I did my best to cast my gaze on the road ahead. I don’t remember which member of my family initially scolded me for rubbernecking a particularly grisly accident, but their words echoed in my head as I gazed upon a man, crawling on his hands and knees. He approached slowly; jingling some change in a small plastic jug that was crudely carved at the top. His left arm was covered in the tight hole-ridden flesh of a burn victim. The voice in my head immediately turned into my mother’s: would you want a bunch of people staring at you? Our eyes met briefly, and my body reacted to his visage. If he had been Medusa, I would have surely been a statue. The entirety of his face was burnt. He looked as if he was attempting a blackface joke, except where the racist makeup should have ended, his skin flaked revealing cracked chasms of flesh and infection. I couldn’t control myself, and I turned my gaze away in disgust. I couldn’t help it.

I immediately became angry with myself. The Christian voice in my head that I had buried during the recession came bounding back with full fury. Is this man not the least of your brothers? A leper healed at the temple? The one who came back to Jesus with thanks? You’re an awful human being. Look at you. You can’t even look him in the face can you? You owe him. You owe him for your reaction. You horrible person, you.

I managed a glance back, my conscious allowing nothing less. There he was. He had pulled himself right in front of seat. His brown iris leaked into the rest of his left eye, while the other one met my gaze. He had little patches of hair sticking out of his head, which could have fallen off with every shake of his jug. Time slowed, the jingle of the change cup grew incredibly loud, piercing, reverberating in my ears. I could not take my eyes off of his. I reached into my pocket and pulled out five yuan and slowly let each coin fall into the jar. Each coin sounded like a car crash.

The man crawled on, and my stomach made Maytag noises the whole way home. I tried to think of something else, something funny. I tried to assure myself that I had done something nice for a fellow man, someone who needed my help. It didn’t make me feel any better. My mind returned to the widely opened eyes of the LOLCat. What has been seen cannot be unseen. No shit.