Biff America column: Heathens on the subway

It was a beautiful Boston Sunday morning. I had spent the night before at a wedding. Like any Irish reception, there was a fair amount of drinking and dancing. Being blessed with a strong liver and weak rhythm, I spent more time at the bar than on the dance floor. Had I thought more clearly when I booked my flight, I would have made it for later in the day. But I didn’t, and so there I was on a near-empty subway train cruising though sleepy South Boston neighborhoods toward the airport while three spawns of Satan caromed around the train screaming like wounded animals.

I got on at Park Street and headed toward the Blue Line and Logan Airport. I was reading the Sunday paper, enjoying the quiet, when a young man boarded with three children. No sooner had he sat down, stuck his nose in his own paper, did his kids begin to get out of control. They chased each other from one end of the car to the other, jumping over luggage and climbing on the seats, all the while screaming.


The other passengers and I looked toward the parent expecting him to quiet his children. He kept his face hidden in the newspaper.

How often if we had understood the reason for the bad behavior of others would we have been more tolerant of that behavior?

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If looks could kill that guy would have been deader than Dante. He had allowed his three boys to ruin what was, only minutes before, a peaceful ride. I was angry.

I sized the guy up; he did not look dangerous or threatening. I knew it would probably do no good, but I only had two more stops before I was to get off so I sidled over to him and sat down.

How often if we had understood the reason for the bad behavior of others would we have been more tolerant of that behavior?


“Hey, bud,” I said. “It was a peaceful morning until you got on. Your kids have disturbed everyone on this train. In the future I’d suggest you be more aware of how your children’s behavior affects others.”

The man slowly put his paper down and looked up at me. For the first time I saw that he was young, almost too young to have three kids, and he was crying.

He spoke with a Southern accent, seldom heard in Massachusetts.

First he apologized and called his children over. Then in a low voice he said they just moved here from Florida and that the night before his wife had gotten in a serious car accident and was still unconscious. Since they had just moved to the city, he had no place to leave the kids, so he took them to the hospital. He said he planned to ask a neighbor he hardly knew to watch his kids so he could take the train back to the hospital to be there when his wife got out of surgery. The grieving husband apologized again and said he had been distracted and didn’t want his children to see him crying.

In that three-minute explanation my feeling went from anger to pity. Behavior that only minutes before I considered rude was now completely understandable. I could only imagine the stress and fear felt by the husband, alone and scared in a strange city — all things considered, the children’s conduct was completely understandable.

The guy kept his kids quiet for the rest of the ride. I wished he would let them go wild again to burn off their fear, but I said nothing.


I have a confession to make. That story did not happen to me. I hope you will forgive me for my misdirection, but I felt it necessary. I heard this story told late at night on a “world band” radio show. We were camping in the desert, and I was sitting outside looking at the stars and playing with my shortwave radio. I stumbled on the story and storyteller early on in the narration. Typical with world band, the signal faded in and out a few times but I was able to follow the story line. At the very end, as the hero left the subway, I lost the channel completely before I could learn anything about the source. Since I heard the tale told in the first person, I thought that you should hear it that way as well.


How often if we had understood the reason for the bad behavior of others would we have been more tolerant of that behavior?

“Don’t take it personally.” You hear that often said. Or even better is, “Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s stories like the one above that remind me that, for better or worse, most everyone with whom we share this planet is simply doing the best they can. True, sometimes the best they can do sucks. But changing the behavior in others is often impossible.

Changing how you perceive that behavior, not so hard.

Jeffrey Bergeron, aka Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. Contact him at

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