It wasn’t just a subway swipe
My eyes resemble those of a goldfish as I walk to the subway each morning. They dart in every direction, waging a never ending war against sensory overload. In utter wonderment I scan the structures towering overhead.
Although I pass the same buildings each day, I remain dumbfounded looking at the architectural marvels stretching towards the sky. I think to myself: how could it be that man created all of this?
New York City never ceases to amaze me.
My morning walk ends at Grand Central. You likely know the terminal for it’s famous gold clock at the center, or for the painted ceiling that depicts a night sky with the twelve Zodiac signs. Having now been in operation for more than a hundred years, Grand Central is one of those classic New York City landmarks, drawing in thousands of tourists with it’s magnetic field.
For me though it’s the nearest subway station. Grand Central is where I start each day.
Sometimes while walking to Grand Central I avoid looking up at the buildings and instead watch the organized chaos on the street. Thousands and thousands of people are always racing through the grid. Different dialects will spray around me, and I can only venture to guess the background each person owns.
It feels very much like the hallway of a high school shortly after the closing bell. There’s a hustle here and there’s an energy here for which I’ve found no equivalent anywhere else in the world.
Occasionally I’ll spot a homeless person on my walk. I’ve passed hundreds, maybe even thousands of homeless people on the street since moving here a few years ago. Some days they claw at my heart. Other days, I lack any empathy whatsoever.
I sometimes walk by homeless people as if they were statues that have been attached to the sidewalks for centuries. Worse yet, sometimes I’ll pass them as if they weren’t even there at all.
Now that may sound cold to you, but if you’ve lived here you will know that seeing homeless people on the street is part of every day life. You get used to it. You become numb to it. There’s only so much pain we as humans can absorb.
Writer and holocaust survivor Primo Levi said, “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces remain in the shadows. Perhaps it’s better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”
Living in New York City you simply can’t allow each person you pass on the street to claw at your heart. The compounding sadness would overwhelm you.
However there are those unique New York City moments that stay with you; those moments that change the way you view something you had seen a thousand times before.
I can’t tell you his name or how he ended up homeless. I don’t have any personal information. All I can tell you is that he wore a tattered shirt and looked to be at least fifty years old. He was a black man, standing just about 6 feet tall. He had a scraggly salt and pepper beard, and bags below his eyes.
He was waiting outside the subway turnstiles in Grand Central as I was heading to work around 7:30 one morning.
I entered the subway and was about to head towards the shuttle train to Times Square when I spotted him. He was asking people as they walked out for a free swipe to get in.
I waited for maybe forty-five seconds (which to stand still in New York is the equivalent of waiting for an hour) and watched the people pass. Each person either quickly glanced at him or kept walking without batting an eye.
Finally someone exiting the subway used their card to swipe the man through. My frozen world suddenly came back to life, and I realized I had been standing in the subway watching the entire thing. The rest of my commute, I couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter.
Here was a man who had nothing. He owned just the torn clothing on his back, the scraggly beard on his cheeks, and the hanging bags beneath his eyes.
He could have easily jumped over the bar. He could have followed someone opening one of the exit doors for a wheelchair or a stroller. Nobody would have stopped him. I figured he had nothing to lose.
Yet there he stood, waiting patiently outside the turnstiles, hoping someone would be nice enough to stop and help.
As I mentioned before, I don’t know this man’s name. I don’t know where he lives. I don’t know if he’s even still alive. I can tell you though that this man knew the difference between right and wrong. I can only believe he was too proud to act otherwise.
So how has my perspective changed?
There are still those days where I pass homeless people on the street without giving it much thought. I would be lying to you if I said otherwise. As I mentioned earlier, our hearts and minds are unable to take in all the sadness and pain of every homeless person in this city.
I hope though that this touching moment in the subway at Grand Central serves as a constant reminder that homeless people are… people. They are not statues. They are not invisible. They are there, and they are people.
People may live without homes. People may have tattered clothes. They are still people, and they can teach us extraordinary lessons.
Homeless people may have the power, even in a city as beautiful, as remarkable, and as alive as New York, to remind us of our humanity. They might stand outside the turnstile, instead of jumping over the bar.