At the time, I was a partner in a prestigious law firm taking the number Five train from Grand Central to Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. The New York subway is a great equalizer. It is quick and affordable transportation used by all. One could say that, at least by outward appearance and “station,” I was toward the top of the subway food chain. I wore a suit, carried a Coach brief case, and made my living in comfortable confines of a major law firm, in a large office, behind a big wooden desk. I attended “partner lunches” and committee meetings; I travelled internationally; I made arguments in court; I held prestigious positions in the American Bar Association; I lived in the suburbs; if I worked late, I took a car service home. Pretty good right?
As was usual for the downtown ride, I entered a packed train and stood holding onto a post in the subway car. At Fourteenth Street, Union Square, there was a mass exodus. Several seats opened, I sat down, continuing to read a magazine. From the corner of my eye, I saw someone enter the car. He squeezed into the space next to me. He was a homeless person. He wore and old pair of filthy sneakers, torn dirty jeans, a blackened t-shirt, the remnants of an overcoat, and he stunk. He stunk of body order, urine, and heaven knows what else. In 70’s rock parlance, “Aqualung” had boarded the train.
I was immediately uncomfortable and disturbed. Should I get up? Would that be an insult? Might that provoke this wretch sitting next to me? My stop could not come soon enough. I immediately did what I think many of us do at times like this. I mentally began to distinguish myself from the “bum” sitting next to me. He had to be flawed, lesser, maybe bad, or even “evil.” He could only be in his situation if he was in some way lesser than me – a lesser person. And in this, I found comfort. I was somehow “elevated” by this stranger’s demise. I had more, because I deserved to have more. I was better, smarter, cleaner, and certainly nicer. In the space of the few minutes between Fourteenth Street and Brooklyn Bridge, I had constructed my own social order, with me nearly near the top, where I “deserved to be.”
Ah, Brooklyn Bridge, just one more stop and I can extricate myself from this trap. He has not said a word, asked me for money; just sit there – so far so good!
Finally, my stop, Fulton Street. I rose from my seat and proceeded toward the opening door. Then, I felt it, what I dreaded, a tug on my suit jacket. It could only be “the bum.” It was him of course. I turned. I anticipated only the worst. Did he want money? Would he curse me? Maybe try to provoke me? Almost reflexively, I reached into my trouser pocket in the hope that a few coins would make him go away. Our eyes met (his were bright startling blue), and he said in gentle voice, “sir, your phone.” And in his outstretched hand was my cell phone. It had slipped out of my pocket as I sat. He handed it to me with a wide, largely toothless smile. My eyes were suddenly opened. In that instant the kindness and gentleness of this stranger washed over me and through me. I experienced a simultaneous rush of joy and shame. I managed to blurt out a quick “thanks” and hurried off the train.
In that one or two seconds of interaction - three words and a smile - every supposition and arrogant assumption that had lofted me through my ride downtown came crumbling from beneath me. They were all wrong. A person I had moments ago relegated to subhuman status was instantly revealed to me as strikingly real, feeling, human, and humane. He certainly was nice; me, maybe not so much? How could anyone” nice” so easily disdain another on appearance alone? It was all at once a terrifying and wonderful revelation.
I could close this anecdote with countless quotations and clichés about books and covers, judging not lest we be judged, etc. Suffice it to say that this lesson will never leave me. My eyes had been opened to new possibilities and my heart opened to compassion – and in what seemed to be the most unlikely of places. It was a truly wonderful and magical moment. So before we relegate any person to some lesser status by some notion of worth or station, remember:
It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you [or I or we] are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child