An image of a young man sleeping on a stranger's shoulder has been held up as an act of kindness. Here's why that's wrong.

Isaac Theil may be the New York subway’s biggest celebrity this week. Last Thursday, the 65-year-old Brooklynite was making his way home on the Q train when his neighbor fell asleep on his shoulder. And there he stayed for the next half hour, telling one onlooker who offered to help rouse the sleeping straphanger, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”

 

Astounded and impressed, the onlooker snapped a quick photo and posted it to Reddit, where it’s since gone viral.

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The sweet image of a middle-aged, observant Jew and a slumbering young black man has been held up as a sign of all that’s right with the diverse city (the original Redditor wrote, “It was a small gesture, but a kind one. I love New Yorkers!”). And the Jewish blogosphere has caught onto this random act of kindness, too. The online magazine

But the subway etiquette question isn’t actually all that clear here. Should you let your neighbor sleep for that long, even if you have no idea whether they’re going to miss their stop? Can an act of commuter kindness actually go wrong?

Unsurprisingly, lots of commenters on the 228 message-long Reddit thread have weighed in on the issue. One apparently very sleep-prone poster told the story of an unfortunate ride home from a party in Park Slope back to the East Village that ended with a ride all the way to the end of the line in Jamaica, and then back to Coney Island, and then finally home. Another put it pretty simply: “I've woken up at Wakefield 241st at 5:30 in the morning. Quite devastating.”

Clearly lots of commuters are tired and could use a nap. But there’s no way that the benefits of a few minutes of sleep can outweigh the frustration of waking up miles from home, right? (Not for nothing, The New York Times is on it, confirming your common-sense feeling that, no, dozing on the subway isn't all that restorative). And half an hour is a long time to doze off, with a lot of potentially missed stops.

It looks like everything probably turned out all right after Theil got off the train at his usual stop at Newkirk Avenue. After the photo was posted on the startup Charidy's Facebook page, commenter Garvey Dutes came forward to claim the identity of the mysterious subway sleeper, reassuring everyone that he didn’t miss his stop.

This is me, I was not on drugs. I came from a long day of college, very tired and I nodded off on this random guy. I actually remember falling asleep, haha thank you and god bless to that man who let me sleep.

A happy ending, and, yes, a sign of human kindness. Still, the verdict is that you should probably wake someone, nicely. Or tell them to download that handy, and free, nap app. And hope that someday, someone has the kindness to wake you. In the poetic words of one Redditor, “Some days you’re the sleeper. Some days you’re the shoulder.”

Image via Reddit.

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