Everyday on my way to work, as I exit the train at Penn Station and join the heard of others dragging their behinds to work, one can see an unfortuantely high amount of homeless and sometimes mentally unstable individuals roaming about. Some are sleeping on the sidewalks, asking for change or meandering about, as we make our way to our final destination. It’s a daily observation and one that is both disheartening and frustrating. This morning as I was walking to work, I overheard two obviously more fortunate people blasting what appeared to be a homeless male who they had to sidestep. I overheard them say a few vile things, obviously judging this person rather harshly. I wanted to share a story with them, if only time permitted, but they hurried along, not caring too much about why this person was the “way he was”. I shook my heard as I remembered one evening when I was in 9th grade, I was on a the train heading back home to the Heights. I had just finished wrestling practice and had picked up a turkey sandwich and some warm donut holes from the comer deli next to the school. The deli owner knew when I was in training I usually had to cut weight before my match, but as a treat, every Monday, he would save me a dozen warm ones. This particular day I only ate half my sandwich and closed the bag. Out of the corner of my eye I observed a disheveled man staring at either me or my bag of goodies. I asked him if he wanted the bag of food, but he politely responded “no sir”. Taken aback by his politeness, I urged him to please take it as I was not going to eat it. Shocked, I remember him saying “really?? Are you sure”, all the while I am thinking – no biggie. When I walked over and handed him the bag, he took it and ate it so fast, I am not sure he even tasted it. I sat back down, thinking nothing else of it. Maybe ten minutes later this same gentleman approached me, profusely thanking me for what he described as my “act of kindness”. I tried to tell him it really wasn’t much at all, but I could tell he wanted to talk. He went on to explain how it had been a long while since someone had been so nice to him. “Usually”, he said, “all I get are looks of disgust.” “I was not always like this” he explained. I nodded my head, really just to placate him, but just wanting to return to my newspaper, when he showed me an old ID badge with his picture on it. Apparently he was once a VP at Lucent Technologies, which at that time was a huge corporation. He went on to explain how he lost his wife and two children to a drucken driver and couldn’t cope with the grief. He was lost and spiraled into severe depression. He lost faith and didn’t want to deal with life anymore. He had lost faith in people and couldn’t deal with life as he knew it. According to him, my unsolicited small act of kindness made him “hopeful”. He told me he appreciated it and walked away. That interaction, left a deep impact on me; it help me realize how tragedies sometimes shape the course of someone’s life and how profound the saying not to judge a person until you walk in their shoes is. This man taught me a valuable lesson, several really. Yes we can learn from everybody we interact with. Not everyone we see laying in the street are drug addicts, lazy or bums. Some might just be former executives who could no longer cope with life after a tragic event. Perhaps they need some mental help, a hot meal or just a good morning. Since, I have often wondered what became of him. Did he recover? I know it’s never pleasant to be approached, to have to walk over or move out of the way from these less fortunate individuals, but if we could just empathize a little and realize sometimes shit happens in life, then just maybe we can learn to be a kindler people.
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
– Simone Weil