The Shame at Subway

By Weizhen (Justin) Yuan

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This semester, in Writing and Rhetoric, we have learned about various forms of systematic discrimination, including unjustified incarceration, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex. About a month ago, a firsthand experience had deepened my realization of this issue we have studied for a long time by putting it in front of my very eyes. My name is Justin Yuan, I am an undergraduate student from the University of Notre Dame, and this is my story.

[Jazz music]

It was the end of fall break, a couple of friends and I rushed into the Millennium Station thirty minutes before the last train back to campus. [road noise] We looked around hungrily, and the only open food shop we found was a Subway sandwich store kept by an old, unfriendly cashier. On top of that, as we were ordering our sandwiches, my eyes caught a new guest tottering into the door. This man, despite wearing a shabby coat and a raggy winter hat in mid-autumn, looked small in the narrow space. However, his dreadful eyes and the full mouth of yellow, uneven teeth, buried under the dark, wrinkled face, told me that this was a “homeless” person that people refer to. Knowing this new information, I felt slightly uncomfortable—this was the first homeless person I ever met in person—and when the man approached me as I was leaving the counter, my emotion turned to fear. For a second, all the news I heard about people being robbed and harmed in cities ran through my head. But eventually, none of those things happened. The only thing the man mumbled in a low voice was, “Hey, can you buy me a sandwich?”

Up to that point in my life, I had considered myself a generous person. Back in China, I was always willing to spare a dollar from my pocket to the old lady or the crippled man in front of our school gate in return for their words of gratefulness. But at that very moment, the only thought I had was, Did he just ask me to spend seven dollars to buy him a sandwich? Seven dollars is about ten times the amount I expect to give to a panhandler, plus I was desperate to save myself some money after several luxurious meals in Florida that cost $30 to $50. Also, Why is he being so rude? He didn’t even say “excuse me” or “please” like the others. I’m not giving this guy anything. Eventually, I said to the man, “Um...I don’t quite understand what you are sayin.” And this is not completely a lie. He did speak unclearly.

To my surprise, the man did not stop but drew nearer and put a dollar in my hand, as to clarify his word. The one-dollar bill felt heavy in my palms, and that is the moment I realized I had to cut this off. I put the money on the counter and mumbled again, “I’m sorry,” with an apologetic smile on my face. Then, I turned away from that pair of disappointed eyes, and the old cashier stepped out of the counter to drive him out, cursing him and threatening to call the police. I suddenly felt a little sorry for the man since I had never seen someone who was already so miserable get such harsh treatment. Maybe if I had bought him the sandwich, he could have stayed here at least to finish dinner, I thought. But at the same time, I also felt relieved as the cashier solved my awkwardness. Carrying these emotions, I left the store for my train. [Noise of train].

The cashier closed the store right after we left, and we finished our meals in a pizza shop nearby. As we were about to go out into the platforms, I caught the man in sight again entering from another door. It seemed like my conscience was coming back, so I ran back to him and said, “Hey, the Subway now is closed. If you want to have a dinner, you could go to the pizza store over there!” The moment I speak out, I already know this is vague. And this time, the man did not say anything. He looked at me in awe for a moment, then turned his back to me without looking at me.

[Sounds of opening and closing the door]

[Jazz music playing]

Two days later, I was sitting at my desk preparing for my Writing and Rhetoric class, while the image of the poor man was still haunting me. It occurred to me that everything I did that day—that apologetic smile, and that redundant greeting—was to satisfy my own conscience instead of really helping the man. Even if the man went to the pizza shop, as I told him, he would probably be driven out. Shame struck deep into my heart, but it also provoked me to reflect deeply about the experience and connect it with what I was currently doing.

For all the issues we studied this semester, there was one thing I did not understand: If there are people revealing them, why are they still not solved? Why are they still existing? The peaceful protests about police brutality after the shooting of Michael Brown was in 2014 [Sound of gunfire], but six years later, the same thing still happened to George Floyd regardless. Similarly, Angela Davis pointed out the fallacy of the Prison Industrial Complex in the US nearly twenty years ago. Since then, there were countless documentaries, podcasts, and speeches addressing the same problem. Yet, today, large prisons containing thousands of mistreated people are still standing tall. Maybe what modern people lack is neither the knowledge about the hardships nor the will to speak out to evoke the awareness and efforts of others. What we lack is maybe what I was missing that day at the train station: the courage to take action, to embrace those who are not like us, and to give up something we don’t really need for the well-being of others.

[Background music]