Thanksgiving, that sacred day of consumption that serves as the ultimate symbol of America’s consumer values, is tomorrow. Its origins may be questionable, but the holiday always makes me reflect on the people, places, and things that I value.
I have a ton of things to be thankful for this year. I got a new job and met amazing new people, both of which gave me new perspective on life. I was able to travel the world, see great shows, and drink so, so much booze. My fruit has been bountiful this year, both physically and metaphorically.
However, each year I find myself thinking back on one particular Thanksgiving. It stands out not because of the amazing food or truly satisfying nap I took post-feast. It was a stranger’s kindness that left its mark on me, and continues to remind me that for each irritating interaction I have there are still wonderful people out there.
Thanksgiving Eve is, traditionally, a shit show in New York City. Everyone that lives here gets out of work early, and everyone coming back into town arrives just in time for happy hour. Locals and ex-pats reunite in bars everywhere, because who wants to spend the night with their families when they’re going to be with them the entire following day? It’s an urban jungle full of hammered wild animals.
Five years ago, I was back in New York after graduating from college. I was broke (despite having two jobs and an internship), drowning in student loans, and dealing with the fact that I had to readjust my life plan. Most of all, I was jealous of my friends who had gone to graduate school and still saw adulthood as a faraway concept. I had a lot to drink about that night and not a whole lot I felt I should be thankful for. Several hours in West Village dive bars saw me getting on the last train home tired, bitter, and full of contempt for humanity.
This aggravation was exacerbated by the fact that the train car I was in was jam-packed with incredibly drunk teenagers. They’d all come home from college for Thanksgiving, and like me they had met up with old friends and gotten holi-dazed. Unlike me, their rosy image of the future hadn’t yet been painted over with a black brush. I hated them not just because they were yelling obnoxiously at each other, but because they represented a phase in my life that I knew was over and desperately clung to nonetheless.
When my stop came, I stood up and went to the train car doors. Most of the college kids were standing in this area; the girls were consoling crying comrades, the guys were arguing over who got to sleep with which girl. Typical drunk tomfoolery, but in the small space we were confined to it felt hostile. I waited anxiously in front of the sliding doors, hoping that I’d be able to escape before a fight broke out. The doors, however, did not open.
The guy standing next to me sighed. “What is taking so long?” he said. I shrugged at him and shook my head, the universal sign for commiseration. I glanced over my shoulder at the drunk guys yelling at each other and rolled my eyes, the universal sign for, “Can you believe these fuckwads?” He sighed again, the universal sign for mutual disdain.
We waited, while the argument behind us escalated. An announcement was made that the train was being held at the station for the police to arrive and “remove unruly passengers”. I could only assume they were referring to the pack of drunks in my train car, who were getting rowdier by the second. After ten minutes of being jostled by them, the guy next to me groaned. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “I can see my wife down there waiting for me. I just want to get off this damn train!”
“Same here,” I said. “If I had known this was going to happen I would have taken the bus."
Suddenly, I was pushed into him by someone behind me. I turned around and saw that the two guys who’d been yelling were now shoving each other. The first punch was thrown a second later, and their verbal sparring turned into an all-out brawl. I was standing inches away from the fray, and having visions of the black eye I’d be sporting at Thanksgiving dinner the following day.
But then, the guy next to me grabbed my arm and pulled me behind him. He shielded me from the flying fists, holding his ground while the drunk teenagers punched wildly and their friends did nothing to stop it. I peeked over his shoulder and saw one of their missed shots land on his face, and knew it would have been my cheek that got hit if he hadn’t stepped between me and the fight.
It was only a few moments before the train’s doors opened and we were allowed to flee onto the platform. The police were rushing up the stairs by this point, and they ran into the car and grabbed the two guys involved in the fight. As they pulled them off the train, I looked at my champion.
“Holy shit,” I said. “Thank you so much for that. I can’t believe you protected me in there."
He shrugged, like it was something he did on the regular. “It’s fine, they’re idiots."
“That was so…heroic,” I said. “No one’s ever done something like that for me before. I wish there was something I could do for you. I mean, you’re bleeding!"
He wiped the side of his mouth, staining his coat red. “I just want to get into my wife’s car and go home."
“That’s the least of what you deserve,” I held out my hand to him. “I’m Sam." He said his name was Mike, and when he took my hand to shake it I pulled him into a hug instead. “Seriously, thank you so much,” I said. “Your wife is a lucky woman."
He laughed. “Trust me, I’m a lucky man too."
I never saw Mike again, but each Thanksgiving since then he’s in my thoughts. His action might have seemed small to him at the time, but it gave me something huge. It reminded me that even when shit is hitting the fan, there are still things to be grateful for. There are people everywhere who will go out of their way to help strangers in need. Going into the holiday season, especially given current events, it’s a message that we all should strive to remember.
When we go around the table tomorrow and say what we’re thankful for, I’ll still be thinking of Mike. I hope that he and his wife are surrounded by their own loved ones, safely tucked away from the wasted hordes, and that his travels are free of drunk guys fighting over crying women.