It’s not that hard to avoid being a bad samaritan. Don’t punch passersby. Don’t steal stamps. Don’t send text-diatribes that deplete data plans. For the most part, U.S. laws don't require people to lend a hand, only to keep their hands to themselves. And, being a neutral presence in society arguably satisfies the minimum requirements for moral citizenship in a number of ethical theories. But being a good samaritan is much harder, because who we are and what we’ve been through shapes our understanding of benevolent intervention. Good intentions don't turn failed attempts to help into acts of heroism. Case in point: The debate over napping on the NYC subway.
Earlier this year, news broke of yet another subway slashing. This time, 33-year-old Ricardo Medina tried to wake up a stranger dozing on the G Train around 3 a.m, as the New York Post reported. Anthony Purdie, 54, did wake up, but he didn’t thank Medina for his services. Instead, Purdie slashed Medina’s nose with a boxcutter before reporting himself to police as the victim of an attempted robbery. Medina also reported the altercation, but depicted himself as the victim.
Was Medina just trying to do the right thing — taking action to make sure Purdie got off the subway at his stop, in-tact and knowing he didn't get cozy in unidentified subway gunk? Or, did Medina overstep and even arguably infringe on Purdie’s right to pass out on public transportation?
New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton would probably side with Medina. In early February, Bratton came down against subway sleeping. Given that 50 percent of subway crime involves sleeping passengers, Bratton said, NYPD would start proactively waking up napping straphangers to decrease their chances of becoming victims of theft, violence and sexual assault. As we reported, "officers will use their own discretion when deciding whether or not to wake someone up. A rush hour napper might be given a free pass; someone asleep at at 2 a.m., however, won’t be so lucky."
The policy shift didn’t actually change the law. According to MTA rules, a $2.50 swipe buys someone the right to board the L and conk out — unless they take up more than one seat, interfere with train operation or disrupt other passengers.
Still, Bratton's call for Nudge Reform didn’t sit well with a lot of New Yorkers, who saw nap patrol as a nod to phased-out, discriminatory practices like Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows policing. Nudging riders, transit denizens complained, would just become a sanctioned way to prey on the homeless and other “suspicious”-looking people. Are we really telling people who slog through long hours, traverse boroughs and clock in at multiple jobs that they can’t catch a cat-nap on their commute home? Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment comes with an implied right-to-rest. International human rights laws accord more explicit REM protection.
I don’t take issue with subway napping — unless someone goes fetal on my lap or pushes me into a pile of discarded chicken bones, rush-hour rest is a you-do-you situation. But I semi-regularly wake people up, believing that I'm doing the right thing.
Like third-rail rats and "Showtime!" troupes, napping riders blend into to the ecosystem of the subway. Most of the time, slumped riders don't catch my eye. But when I do notice a dozer, my reaction hews more closely to that of Medina. I wonder if continuing their trip in the same state of non-cognizance is in their best interest. If the sleeper is a child, a solo woman, someone who may have a developmental disability, someone who appears too still to be alive or someone whose behavior suggests “overdose” more than “over-worked,” my impulse is to do something. Doing nothing feels like an ethical failure. Something feels like a swing in the right direction.
I don't go straight for the nudge. I just get a little closer to the sleeper than I'd like and raise my voice a little more than other passengers would like: "Hey, are you okay?" Maybe, I repeat the question. Maybe I slide down the bench and monitor the sleeper until I see signs of respiratory function or arrive at my stop. In rare cases, I go beyond verbal prodding and poke the sleeper with a gloved finger or USB cord.
I assume people want to wake up. I don’t assume they’ll reflexively slice open my face when they do wake up. I assume other riders support my decision to look out for human welfare, even if the riders themselves prefer to stay plugged in and tuned out.
My assumptions have everything to do with my own fears about waking up in Brighton Beach or Canarsie or JFK with one shoe, a numb torso and nothing but a few Sacagawea dollars — reasonable worries, I think.
Unlike unlucky Medina, I’ve never incurred harm from my attempts at rousing resters. But, I don’t think my efforts have done all that much either. I've seen little gratitude. I haven't even suceeded in getting many people to open their eyes and sit up.
A few weeks ago, I tried to use a series of boot-nudges to wake up a man who’d begun foaming at the mouth. When he didn't respond, I recruited someone — the only someone who would look me in the eyes — to help. When that didn't work, we alerted the conductor, who quickly dismissed the man as drunk. So we left him. Before I got off the subway, I stuck five dollars in his pocket. As I glanced back through the window of the departing train, I saw another passenger snatch the money.