Wanting Metro Miracles

Yesterday I found myself getting into a metro carriage by the same door as a man on a kind of wheel-board.

There’s probably a better word than wheel-board, but I don’t know it. A wheel-board has the same function as a wheel-chair, but to me it looks much less satisfactory. It is just a square wooden board like a little table-top, with four small wheels underneath. The wheel-board user, sitting on the board and strapped to it, wears gloves, so that he can push himself along either the ground or the floor of the metro carriage.

A significant proportion of the people who collect small change down the metro carriages have a physical disability of this kind. Sometimes they wear camouflage jackets. I’ve seen at least one in wheel-chair, but occasionally they walk on their knees and occasionally they have a wheel-board. Russian friends have told me that it’s a business: the people actually asking for money have been hired by a sort of begging mafia: or, at least, that that’s what happens sometimes, and you’ve got no way of knowing.

This was the first time I’d seen someone actually getting themselves into the carriage on a wheel-board. It was terrifying. The floor of the train isn’t at the level of the platform. You have to get your fists on the carriage floor first, hoist up the front wheels, then pull the back wheels up. This time, this man got the front wheels up, got his whole body at that steep incline, and nearly toppled sideways. I crouched with a hand held uselessly in the vague direction of the carriage edge, as you do when you want to show willing but have no idea how to help. He righted himself, got into the train, rolled backwards while he found a bag for collecting the money in, then pushed himself forwards, down the carriage.

Possibly writing this is itself an insult to his dignity.

What happens, I thought, if a man on a wheel-board does fall between the platform and the train? What happens if the only other passenger on the platform side doesn’t manage to prevent him falling on his back or his head or too close to the edge? Do the metro people check these things before the train whizzes away? The doors will open again if he’s trapped between them: you can see that happen all the time with people’s handbags. But still.

What happens to a person’s self-esteem when they spend all day in metro carriages, pushing themselves along with gloved fists on the ground, at the level of everyone else’s knees?

It’s ridiculous.

And I don’t know what one random person on the metro can do about it—apart from giving them some change.

So I have two fantasies about the Moscow metro.

In one of them, Spirit-filled, bold and trusting people go out into the metro together and pray, and they see limbs grow and bodies healed and spirits restored, in a comprehensive defiance of ‘begging mafias’, the accepted status quo, and the general sense that nothing can change in that way. Meanwhile, at the moment I don’t even know how to say ‘Can I pray for you?’ in Russian—let alone actually pray in Russian—assuming I had the guts.

The other fantasy involves every person in these circumstances being equipped with proper wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. In a way, I really don’t see how it can be that difficult. Healthcare, rehab, training, fulfilling jobs, a place in society for each person currently asking for small change in underground tunnels. Why not?

I don’t know why not, but I think it’s a situation where the reasons why not will never ever be good enough.

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