February 25, 2014


The Boy In The Subway

The boy is sitting at the end of the subway car.  He wears a coat with a ragged hem, a dirty knit cap and a sign: Down on my luck Please Help.  He carries a banged up drink cup in which a few coins clink.  No gloves.  It is 29 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stepping into the late night train, my friends and I grab hold of the center pole between the doors.  I set my 45-pound pack on the floor at my feet, groaning, flexing my shoulders.  My friend chats with the man from the show we’ve just seen.  We are flushed with a good time, sweet drinks, good food, and a brisk walk.

As the train jerks into motion, the boy stands up and ghosts through the car—hoping.  I keep my eyes on my friend.  I think she is talking about a scene from the show.  Or maybe where she lives in Queens, a lovely two-bedroom apartment full of light and comfort.  I want to give something to the boy; to look into his tired face and into his dull, brown eyes and say, “Hello;” effectively saying—“I see you.  You exist.  I honor the light in you as another human like myself.”

Maybe he hears my thoughts.  I look steadily into the face of the man from the show and answer his question as the boy pauses at the end of the car.  And then I feel him ghosting back through the car, passing behind me, brushing softly against my clean, bright blue North Face jacket.

I slide my eyes to the side and watch him slump back into his seat at the end of the car.  He sighs.  His hands scrub his face and then hold his head up as his elbows come to rest against his knees poking through his torn, crusty jeans.

I can feel the single dollar bills burning in my pocket. My heart jumps about like my dog when she wants to go for a walk.

The advice I’ve been given from my New York friends replays in my head:

“Just ignore them.  So many of them are just scamming…”

But, how do we tell the difference?

“I work hard for my money.  They don’t choose to.  That’s their choice. There’re plenty of jobs in this city.  They could get one if they wanted to.”  “But, maybe they haven’t the skills, or the opportunities, or the strength or the courage or the know-how to navigate this crazy system like we do?

“You have to be careful.  I mean, every day you run into these people—you get used to it.  You can’t help them all.”  But surely, we could acknowledge them?  Or we could give some change to a few every day, the change from dropping dollars into the cashier’s hand at the lunch counter? 

The presence of these dirty, raggedy, brothers and sisters of ours dredge up shame in us…robbing us of the pleasure of our blessings—accusatory as we gather our comfort and privilege like a walled fortress around us.

I brightly engage in the conversation with my friends, hearing not a word I will recall.  The boy, I will remember.  I leave the train without a backward glance while tears burn behind my eyes.

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