Poor Tony was on my train.
It was mid-July 2009, and I’d just made the multi-block morning trek from my overpriced one-bedroom apartment in Bethesda, MD, to the metro station of the same name. I’d been making this same journey for just over a month, having begrudgingly left academia for a job in the ‘real world.’
It was clear something was wrong as I boarded the metro car from the dimly lit platform: a shaking man does, after all, stand out on a morning train.
He was, like Poor Tony, “one of those loathsome urban specimens that respectable persons on trains slide and drift quietly away from without even seeming to notice they’re even there” (304). He convulsed violently, his mass creating a forward momentum that pulled him further out of his seat with every quake. Within seconds, his body succumbed to gravity, and he tumbled face first onto the floor as the train departed the station. In his new position, his over-sized sweatpants had slid down his waist, exposing the tops of his haunches. At a certain point, he lost control of his bowels, and the carpet darkened underneath him.
Photo courtesy of Eric Fidler (CC BY-NC 2.0)
I’ve shared various versions of this story in the years since the incident; in almost all of them, I paint myself as a gape-mouthed Midwesterner, incredulous that my fellow commuters would refuse to look up from their Washington Posts or offer assistance to someone who was clearly so unwell. I, without a doubt, would have done something if I had known about the emergency call button in the metro car and if I wasn’t, in my big-city newness, still moderately fearful of never-encountered situations. Right?
Yet, like your Infinite Jest respectables who “quietly retreated as far as possible from the puddles in which [Poor Tony] sat,” I kept my distance, my own pink face no doubt looking stricken (403).
Someone pressed the emergency call button. The conductor announced we would be holding momentarily for a sick passenger. Paramedics eventually descended to extract the man from the metro car. I told them I’d seen him seize.
When I read the section of Infinite Jest where Poor Tony has a seizure, it makes me consider what I barely thought of that day: the perspective of the man who shook. I was too focused on what was happening to me on my commute that morning, too eager to tell others what I had experienced, that I’d failed to consider what the same events looked like to the man immobile and alone on floor of the metro car.
I’ll never know if the man on my train was suffering from an addiction, had forgotten to take his seizure medicine that morning or was experiencing a freak event precipitated by external cause. I just know that it didn’t occur to me to really care until I was forced inside Poor Tony’s head during his own shake-up — forced to consider how I would feel if faced with similar circumstances.
Both Poor Tony and the man on my metro car helped drive home one of the themes of the book — that we are each alone and struggling in our own ways. Some of us have the luxury to do so behind closed doors, when we take off the face we wear to meet the faces that we meet, while others among us are forced to fight our private battles in public. What I love about Infinite Jest is that it encourages us to look past appearances, to recognize that what we see of people in public is only a sliver of the self.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on Ryan Blanck’s “Letters to DFW” blog in May 2012.