"there's a crackhead on the train"

we are valued as props for your political agenda before finally discarding us

art by Praveen Yarramilli

I was on my way home and waiting for the F train in the 7th ave station after a quick trip to my favorite bakery for a fresh croissant. I was about to text a friend when two brown girls (not much younger than me, probably freshmen in college) passed by and stood a few feet away from me. I wasn’t paying attention until one of the girls in a denim jacket mentioned a book that suddenly caught my attention and I found myself eavesdropping on their conversation. She was shrilling in excitement about how incredible the book, The Space Between Us, was and how it had to be the best out of Thrity Umrigar’s collection. I laughed to myself, thinking back when I was about their age arguing with my mom about letting me stay up for five more minutes past 3 am because I refused to put down the book down for 2 days. I continued listening to their conversation about Marxist feminist politics and how deeply they appreciated the analysis of caste in the book. I looked at them in the corner of my eye and marveled at how for a brief moment, we were a reflection of each other.

The train arrived and 3 of us stood in front of a cart, waiting for the doors to open until we saw what it looked like inside. A man in a long stained camo jacket was mumbling to himself while he nervously walked up and down the train cart. There were 2 large garbage bags on one of the seats and trash was scattered all over the floor. The doors opened and I heard the same girl in the denim jacket quickly take her friend’s hand and said,

“Let’s go to the next one. There’s a crackhead in the train cart.”

The doors was still open but her words stung, making my body unable to move from my spot. This was not the first time I’ve heard this before as my own friends made similar passing comments and scrolled past memes across my twitter timeline. It’s funny how completely gobsmacked but also placid I am whenever I hear someone saying this, how easily people villainize those struggling with addiction while also discarding mentally ill people and being violently antiblack.

I thought back to angry rants I watched on Instagram stories earlier this week after Andrew Yang, a recent candidate running for mayor, had proposed a solution for the increasing amount of people with mental health issues are living on the streets,

 “We need to get them the care that they need, but that will also supercharge our economic recovery, because we all see these mentally ill people on our streets and subways," he said. "And you know who else sees them? Tourists. And then they don’t come back, and they tell their friends, ‘Don’t go to New York City.’”

I watched people posting long rants seething in anger along with millions of New Yorkers, adding yet another reason to a never-ending list of why we hate Yang. While I appreciated the conversation, I also felt slightly uncomfortable as I knew that they were not too different from him.

We live in a system that enforces the idea of depicting our worth based on how skilled we are, how fast we are, and our efficiency purely for monetary gain. As someone who suffers from mental illnesses, I have come to realize how we are discarded and seen as valueless we are in this world. But now in the 21st century in the digital age and mental health-themed infographics, we are valued as props for your political agenda before finally discarding us.

I think about Yang’s statements and how quickly people expressed their anger but then wondered how many of them crossed a street to avoid a homeless woman screaming to herself in the corner before going home to facetime their friend, indulging in a conversation on Marxist theory. The truth is that you’re terrified of mentally ill people, especially those that you love to discuss in your politics. You run across the street to avoid us, or quickly rush to the next cart in fear that we will harm you when the reality is that we are more of a danger to ourselves, not others.

However, I recognize that you are not at fault. The conversation is much more complex. What do you do in that situation besides run and avoid us? This is just the result of a system that fails to educate people on mental illnesses or how to treat those with mental illnesses.

The man continued to walk back and forth in the empty train cart while all the other carts were crowded with each person on top of each other, despite COVID guidelines. Suddenly, I started to smell all the scents of my body. The aroma of lavender oil mixed with Glossier’s perfume (a recent splurge on retail therapy and act of“self care”) that I lathered all over my body after taking a long cold shower this morning clashed against the putrid fumes of rotting garbage and fried oil coming from the cart. The doors slammed shut and snapped me out of a daze. I realized that I was so deep in my thoughts that I somehow missed the train. As the train rushed by, my eyes met with the man for just a brief moment, but it lingered throughout the rest of the day. He looked terrified.

My phone vibrated in my jeans pocket and saw the text my mom sent to me:

“Aru, ami tomar jhono murgir mangsho ranna korsey. Tomar favorite. Bhashai asho, amra ekasathe khabo, haha. Aru, I made chicken curry. Your favorite. Come home, we will eat together.” My stomach grumbled as I thought of the food waiting for me at home.

I thought of the man and how paranoid he looked. His eyes dreary but wide awake. Memories flashed back to when I was a teenager, weeks of not able to fall asleep at night as I was struck with paranoia that someone was staring at me through my window. I wondered what the man was mumbling about then fumed with anger at the comment the girl made. I thought about how the man and I weren’t any different from each other when suddenly, the fragrance of lavender body oil fused with the Glossier perfume on my skin became stronger even in the sweaty train station as the sweet buttery aftertaste from the croissant I ate earlier today erupted.

I looked down at my hand right hand clutching on to the latest iPhone model my parents gifted me for my 22nd birthday, and my left hand holding a tote bag filled with books, my camera, and snacks from the deli. I knew that when I came home, I would eat a hot homemade meal with my parents before sitting down for my weekly virtual appointment with a therapist who I’ve been seeing for 6 years on and off. I was about to text a friend before I was distracted by the 2 girls if my friend, Syeda, wanted to visit an exhibition to admire Shahzia Sikander’s art with me next week.

I felt for a moment while making eye contact with him that somehow the man on the train and I was tied together in ways that neither of us could ever know or comprehend. But I understood as the train passed by, we were living in two completely different worlds.

I had parents who quickly aided me in receiving help as they saw signs of my deteriorating mental health. Since the age of 14, I’ve been receiving an abundance of tools that taught me how to navigate this cruel world that depicts me as valueless and disposable. After years of therapy and attentive care, I have learned to become self-efficient and how to control my anxiety and paranoia. As a result, I am a working 22-year-old on my way to graduate from an ivy league. The other day, my psychiatrist called me “a success story” and I am now finding myself in a position of power where society finally passes me as valuable. A position where I am more powerful than the man on the train.

I wondered about the man and the 2 girls in the train station from earlier today. Where would the man be today if he was able to receive the care and attention that I did? Where would I be if I didn’t? The thought horrifies me.

I know that deep down, if my parents didn’t make the decision to dedicate themselves to finding resources that I needed, I would be isolated and alone in the world. Because I have been able to accumulate success (interviewed by prolific publications, gaining attention on the internet, attending an elitist institution, and maintaining a job) that deems me as acceptable and most importantly, valuable in this world, you now view me as someone that’s good enough to listen to or even respectable.

I wonder what the man on the train was mumbling to himself and if anyone tried to listen. But instead, people avoided him, creating an invisible border between him and everyone else. Separating the sane and the insane.

The truth is that If I didn’t have access to the care I needed, you wouldn’t be listening to me. Instead, I would be the person on the train mumbling to myself, as you ignore me and pretend that I don’t exist.

So tell me, who is valuable? Who would you devote your attention to? Me? Or the man on the train?

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