A Telling Moment
By Jordan Riak, July 5, 2011

Last Sunday, my wife and I were heading home from San Francisco after a visit to the Museum of Modern Art where we saw a fantastic exhibition of major works by Picasso, Matisse and others of their famous inner circle. We were using public transport, also known as BART, which, for us, is the easiest way to travel to and from the city. At the Orinda stop, two passengers disembarked, leaving two seats vacant across the aisle from us. My wife nudged me and glanced toward the empty seats. We moved. When I asked her why we had changed seats, she whispered in my ear that the old man who was seated directly in front of us smelled badly of urine. Now, from the vantage point of our new seating, I had, in addition to sweeter air to breathe, another unforeseen advantage. I had a clear view of what was about to transpire.

As the train stood at the Orinda platform, an announcement came over the PA system informing passengers apologetically that due to maintenance work on the track ahead, we would be delayed for about 15 minutes. While we waited, two children of about 5 or 6 years of age began playing in the aisle. They laughed and chattered and moved up and down the coach. Then, suddenly, the smelly old man across the aisle stood up, aimed a face contorted with rage at the passengers in the rear of the coach and blurted: "Get your goddam brats under control! Make 'em sit down and shut the hell up!"

For me, his outburst triggered a sudden lurch from pleasant thoughts about Modernist imagery to the darker world of here and now. I said to my wife, "You can just imagine how he treats his grandchildren, if he has any." "And," she added, "how he was treated when he was little."

The voice on the PA system thanked passengers for their patience. The coach doors closed and we rolled toward home.

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