On a Trolley
‘Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead five track workmen, who have been repairing the track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at that point, and the sides are steep, so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five men down.
You step on the brakes,
but alas, they do not work. Now you suddenly see a spur of track leading off to the right. You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the straight track ahead.
Unfortunately, there is one track workman on that spur of track.
He can no more get off this track in time than the other five can,'
Photo by Marko Mudrinic on Unsplash
To pull the switch or not. Divert the trolley and kill one man to save five, or let the wheels run their intended course and watch the five workmen die.
Pick an option. Whichever one you do, it will not matter at all. If you ever do drive a trolley with no brakes, then you will have a real answer.
A Monday at six p.m. and the train between Boston and Rhode Island was full to crack with humans; rush hour. No breath, air, space in the compartment.
Heat and sweat and the painful grinding of wheels against the metal tracks. Rust and friction, in the atmosphere too. Their smell, and suddenly, another.
Facing the back of the train, far inside, caught between the crowd and window. He could have been my grandfather, yours. He could have been a lawyer once, too. A businessman, doctor. A pastry chef, a hiker, who could have had a family. At that moment, he had a lost smile on his face and around him, a smell of feces.
On that Monday at that six p.m., the unshaven, haggard man had no idea he was losing control of his bowels. His pants. They dropped lower toward his knees as they got darker, wetter, and heavier. The putrid smell spread further but his dazed blue eyes only got lighter.
He was there, but he was not there, the old man. Past his face, through the glass, streamed time and green fields and farmhouses and a few clouds in a sky otherwise clear.
Setting sunshine in the train compartment. Eternal sunshine in his mind. How happy he seemed, smiling at the outside world. Inside, some passengers screamed.
A station. A stampede as soon as the light lit and the sliding doors were opened. The jeers were cruel. The man did not notice. Nor did he, fortunately, the far more hurtful embarrassed side glances, the academic interest, the pity. His eyes remained candidly open, his back and shoulders upright. The hunched ones belonged to those who rushed past him and pretended not to notice.
A Monday at six o’ seven p.m. and a single car on a train from Boston to Rhode Island was empty. The others, packed to the brim. In that compartment, ‘the world forgetting, by the world forgot,’ rode a man who could have been, who was somebody’s someone once. Now he is just old and confused.
Suppose you are a human on a train full of humans at rush hour. Suppose you are tired and your shoes hurt your feet and you still have to make dinner. The train rounds a bend, and as the crowd shifts, there comes into view a man. Not your father, grandfather. Another lost human. There are so many of them.
You reach your stop and you hesitate, but the light goes on, the doors open. The wave pushes you out of the compartment, away from the old man. From the platform and safe distance of intellect, you watch him stare out the window, pants at his ankles now, dignity still upright. The light, the doors. Off he goes.