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After the conductor collects tickets on board the train, a ticket like this is used to mark each passenger who paid for his or her seat on the train. The request “Please Keep In Sight” is ironically analogous to the phenomena of rendering depressed people invisible.
On September 11th this year, I was traveling on the 4:00 P.M commuter rail train into Boston when it struck and killed a young man who had walked onto the tracks. It was a suicide.
The train came to a stop between dense woods and triple deckers, and the conductor informed us, the only thirty or so passengers on board, that there had been a fatality. We waited for more than an hour for the authorities to comb the surrounding area for remains and to coordinate a way to escort us from the scene. The battery in my cell phone had died and so I sat alone mostly in silence . The MBTA later dispatched another train to collect us and we returned to the city.
The incident was briefly profiled on the news, with sources reporting incorrectly that we had been bused by shuttles. The man’s name was never released to the media to protect the confidentiality of the deceased. According to all accounts, and I have read all of them, each unceremonious and no longer than two hundred words, he died accidentally, and we went home.
It’s never that easy. Not one report used language related to the experience of depression or mental illness, or made reference to information such as how one in ten Americans say they currently suffer from depression. Each recounting of the man’s death by the media and by most of the people I spoke to on the train remained succinct and obstinately noncommittal, and in doing so helped demonstrate one of the greatest injustices against people who struggle with some degree of clinical depression, by validating his irrelevance, and his invisibility.
His blood is still soaked in the ground there, and the last act of his life is now branded on my own, burning hot because I feel a sense of obligation to preserve his memory. His identity is a mystery, but in some way I believe that I shared the occurrence of his death with him. To justly honor his life, I think that you should, too.
It’s one of the hottest September afternoons in recent memory. The sky is vast and blue and there are no clouds above or relief from the bright, tired yellow sun just beginning to set in the horizon. You are largely oblivious to the discretion of the early changing leaves, clinging to the tree boughs that brush by the windows you’re staring from, but you notice that the train is disturbing the ones which have already begun to wilt and turn ashen and they fall alongside the tracks. The air is stifling and heavy and still reminiscent of summer.
Before you had stepped off of the platform onto the train, you had been approached by a young man who asked you for the time. With a smile he told you that he had just graduated college and was headed into the city for work, but he was anxiously hopeful that the train wouldn’t arrive on time and that he could call in sick instead. You parted ways, for the time being, as you boarded, and you thought about how none of us were prepared for our lives.
There are thick woods that surround the track and the lumbering train, but it glides through the forest over bridges and hills and through marshes. Sunlight runs across the faces of the scattered commuters a few seats away who were looking into their phones or maybe a book. They never look up. You look ahead to the center of the train car and watch the world pass by, and you saw nothing in particular and everything there was to see, all at once. You attempt to take a picture with your phone but you discover that the battery had died. You plug in your headphones to your iPod. You don’t feel the train stop.
The conductor enters the car and asks for the attention of all of the passengers. He calmly informs us that there is a trespasser on the tracks and that they would get moving again as soon as possible, and he apologizes for any delay before he leaves. You turn back to the window and notice foot trails that cross the tracks and into the woods; it seems impossibly difficult to trespass somewhere that features a designated walking path. What the conductor must have meant is that someone has confronted this train.
On a rainy, cold afternoon in high school a few years ago you had watched a man come into the bakery you were sitting in, soaking wet and alone, and sit in front of the window cradling himself as a puddle collected on his seat. He wore sweats and a wind breaker and he combed his fingers through his tangled, wet brown hair to part it from his face. He was young; he looked directly ahead as he fought his numbness by aggressively clasping his hands together and breathing. Your mother across from you at the cafe table had lost your attention and you continued to stare at him. Everyone in the restaurant glanced over him, but he was there, and his dark silhouette was cast in front of the gray daylight and the falling rain outside, namelessly validating an experience you couldn’t help but feel as though you both knew. His presence was so commanding that at first he instilled fear in you, but then inspired a sense of resistance against the intolerably quiet sensation of death that you felt had become attached to everything and that you had recently discovered within you. It didn’t require highly skilled insight to know that the man in the bakery understood some great pain because it was expressed breathlessly in his demeanor, like he had been afflicted with cancer that may or may not be terminal. He never saw you, and he walked back into the rain after only a moment without having bought anything. (You later write a college application essay on this man.) It was the most captivating encounter of your life, so far, but you were so afraid to approach him that you never introduced yourself.
So as you’ve reminisced back to that day the conductor has returned, and he confirms what you just realized, that the man on the tracks was dead.
He asks for the cooperation of everyone on board. It was a collision. The authorities were on their way. The man who had died was wearing hospital socks but that was all they could immediately and definitively identify. A passenger wonders out loud if the authorities can just brush the smallest fragments of remains into the woods to prevent the commute from being extended indefinitely. The conductor says that this was the second time he had been on duty when this had happened, and that you don’t walk onto the tracks unless you mean to.
What had made the man on the train tracks a “trespasser” had to make the man in the bakery just the same. They crossed a threshold into the sphere of living fiction that we so carefully write ourselves, and we are unable to comprehend their place in our narrative so we’d like it very much if they just went away. Their anonymity made them threatening. We are story tellers: our practice of the living narrative is part of the essence of being human, but is also one of our most tragic pitfalls: we are the main characters of our own lives, stories that we write every day. You should believe in the coming of your own resolutions, but it should be a moral imperative to help someone else see their own. Listen to strangers and look for their quiet cries for help or even just for a friend.
After another hour, the conductor instructs the passengers to evacuate to a different train that had arrived just ahead on the track. You all move to the front of the car; you pass by the college graduate you had met earlier and nod your head. One by one you climb down onto the gravel outside with help from the police. There is a helicopter above. The sun had finally sunk into the landscape. You climb aboard the other train and rest your head against the window again. “It’s 9/11, too,” you remember one of the passengers had said. “Why did he have to choose this day?” she had asked aloud.
During the attacks, the world watched helplessly as people were brought to their knees in fear, and others surrendered their will to live if it meant that someone else they never met could survive. September 11th was defined by pain and courage. The experience of those who struggle with depression is, too. There is nothing weak or cowardly about it, none of it, and the death of the man on the train tracks was no less tragic than of the men or women who jumped from the towers in New York because of the rising flames in their offices twelve years earlier. You may understand or you may not, but you should know what he did because he wrote himself an ending that deserved to be read, although he is the only one who could ever tell the whole story. I don’t know who he was. He was a trespasser. Who are you?