Why I Took Refuge in a Subway Station
Tanya Schmidt '12
Earlier this winter, I did what many homeless are forced to do: I took refuge in a subway station. It was one of those East Coast afternoons on which I had to clarify that the single digit temperatures I was reporting to my family were not in Celsius, but indeed in degrees Fahrenheit. With unanticipated free time between meetings, I experienced what Shakespeare’s King Lear realizes during the famous storm on the heath scene: how events like extreme weather can both connect those who are experiencing it (or witnessing it) as well as highlight the protection that privilege offers. The aftermath of recent earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan is another such sobering example.
While much analysis in the humanities discusses the invisible perniciousness of systemic prejudices that affect us all, on this day, I marveled that I could see the physical effects of this natural force. Everywhere I turned, I saw students, elderly, and people of various races flinging jackets over their heads in an attempt to shield themselves from the sudden onslaught of winter and wind. As Lear’s Fool says during the storm sequence: “Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools” (3.2.13). In those moments on 5th Avenue, I felt a connection with other New Yorkers, like we were all in this plight together.
I went to a subway station and found shelter on a bench, next to a homeless man who either had the same thought or had no other option.
That is, until I couldn’t find anywhere to sit down and wait out the storm. The nearest public library was already closed, and I didn’t have the necessary identification to remain in the lobbies of a few buildings I entered. I considered walking into a retail store, but my school bag was heavy and I just wanted to rest for a while. Not willing to spend money in a city of infinite stores, I found myself stranded in the storm. I went to a subway station and found shelter on a bench, next to a homeless man who either had the same thought or had no other option. Trains came and went, passengers descended and ascended, and my neighbor and I remained in our seats, passing the time where it was warm, and where nobody asked us to explain our presence or to buy an expensive latte.
Shakespeare’s King Lear tells the story of a king who abdicates his throne yet still desires to rule. Susceptible to the false flattery of his daughters Goneril and Regan, Lear ignores the advice from those who dare to tell him the bitter truth. The truth of his relationships is revealed when Lear’s daughters cast him out of their homes during the climactic storm that also represents Lear’s internal emotional turmoil. Outside in the cold, Lear exclaims, “Oh, I have ta’en / Too little care of this! / Take physic, pomp, / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” (3.4.32-34). Lear realizes that he has not been able to see beyond the luxuries of his palace, to feel empathy for others with different experiences.
The rain’s pelting is painful for Lear, but the rainwater also suggests a sort of baptism or possibility of renewal. At the beginning of the play, Lear’s loyal advisor Kent admonishes him to “see better” (1.1.161). It takes a series of catastrophes – or, other life experiences – for Lear to develop the humility to know when to ask for help. When Lear asks a question at the play’s end, the old man adds: “Mine eyes are not o’ th’ best, I’ll tell you straight” (5.3.292).
weather can expose hidden inequalities, but even when the sun shines, we must ever learn how to see each other, and the structure of our society, with clearer vision
After my meetings on the day of the storm, I was fortunate enough to return to my apartment. I do not know where the homeless man went. As Lear and I both discovered, weather can expose hidden inequalities, but even when the sun shines, we must ever learn how to see each other, and the structures of our society, with clearer vision.