Two weeks ago as I was waiting for the train up on 125th St, I saw a woman attempting to open a bottle of Orangina. I watched as she struggled with the cap, trying to twist and turn it from different positions and angles; left hand vs. right. I observed as she positioned the bottle between her thighs and used both hands to work the cap loose. I appreciated her resourcefulness when she pulled out her keys and began to saw at the perforation and I winced when she held it between her back teeth and began to clamp down.
I was trying hard not to watch-I didn’t want to embarrass her nor did I want to be caught with the staring problem that most non-native New Yorkers learn quickly to overcome. The only issue was that I could not look away because I was salivating at the thought of how satisfying it would be if I could be the one to get the bottle open.
We have all been there-watching someone we know struggle with a jam or pickle jar; our muscles flexing, our fingers twitching, our jaws gripping in a sort of physical empathy as we watch the battle between man and lid. There is an unspoken rule that you must let the friend/co-worker/lover struggle for at least 3 attempts before you can step in and say, “Um, do you mind if I give it a try?”, knowing with 100% confidence that you will probably get the job done on the first attempt and then hand it back with a glint of pride in your eyes but trying to be humble saying “Well, you loosened it for me.”
So, as I watched this girl work so hard for her refreshment, I wondered what was stopping me from stepping up and offering to help. I certainly wanted to get the cap off of the bottle. I could already hear the crisp bubbly “tst” of the carbonation being released as the metal perforation finally gave. My forearm muscles were aching in anticipation! Still, I chose to pretend I didn’t notice, to watch out the corner of my eye, to act as if I was engrossed in the standing water and the floating metro cards on the tracks below.
There is a quote by Albert Einstein:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.
So, was I choosing not to help this girl because I didn’t know her? I think so. She was unfamiliar to me and therefore I felt separate from her. I could not easily see her struggle with the Orangina bottle as my own struggle. If it had been my sister, my roommate or a friend I would have quickly lent a hand (pun intended!). Einstein goes on to say
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
As I stood there on the train tracks remembering the wisdom of Einstein, I knew that I had fallen into exactly what he had described- a prison of my own delusion that I was separate from Orangina Girl. At that moment I made a choice that would definitely not change history, but it would satisfy a thirst.
"Can I help you get that open?”, I offered. The girl’s face, flushed with effort and frustration, flooded with relief. “Can you, please? I have tried everything”. I took the bottle in my strong hands and twisted hard…then a little harder…. and finally, “Tst”. Relief. I handed the bottle back to her with a humble shrug and said “Well, you loosened it for me”. She couldn’t reply because she was already chugging the cold liquid sunshine inside the bottle. Afterwards, she wiped her lips and said, “That was satisfying”. I couldn’t have agreed more.