One day while going into work, I saw a homeless man on the subway. A sight uncomfortably common in Manhattan, however, this time around, he seemed barely conscious. A gross elixir of urine and alcohol pooled nearby his fallen body. Passengers weren’t sure whether to board the train or exit. This was at Penn Station around 9:15 am so there were plenty of people.
A pair of MTA workers were standing around not sure what to do. They might as well have been passengers. Action came from a mid to late 50s male office worker who seemed very eager to go to work as he exclaimed to the MTA employees, “We need to take him off the train!” The MTA workers weren’t sure if they should just drag him off or ask for his permission first. 50s Office Worker barked at The Homeless Man, “Do you want to get off the train?!” The response was a regurgitation of liquor which the 50s OW interpreted to mean yes. THM was half-dragged, half-carried off as everyone stared. 9:36am. I’m six minutes late.
Everyone late for work. Adjacent subway cars already crammed with people trying to be less late. The rest of us just looked at THM. How sad. How unfortunate. How come? How come there didn’t seem to be a more humane method of helping THM off the car? He was dirty, drunk and homeless. Does it matter? How come I didn’t do anything myself? I was too stunned. I was too selfish. How come no one did anything? Does it matter? How come I didn’t take my jacket off and put it under THM’s head, at least to give him some head rest? Are you kidding? This is a Scotch & Soda double-breasted herringbone peacoat. Won’t be easy to find another one of these. Homeless people are many. This coat is not. 9:41 am. 11 minutes late.
I once volunteered for a four month period at my church to minister to the homeless community around our church in Hell’s Kitchen. We made sandwiches, care packages and conversation. We held hands, gave hugs and flashed smiles. We prayed, consoled and shared Scripture. If I didn’t volunteer for this, I would have played basketball at my church as we normally do after service. Basketball is a lot of fun for me. I gave up fun to help the homeless. Fun can be had again. Fun is multiple and not rare. Fun exists in many states. In my mind, homeless people typically exist in one state: sad. Sad can be had again too. In my mind, fun is rare to homeless people. Fun is never on sale. My Scotch & Soda coat was on sale for $80. An absolute steal. I wonder how much a moment’s head rest was worth to THM.
I kept on thinking What would Jesus do? I couldn’t help it. I’m Christian, or at least I say I try to be. I saw Jesus walking over to THM and taking off a piece of his robe or something to help wash his face off or put it under his head. If his robe was one piece and he could not take it off, I saw Jesus place THM’s head on his lap or something to that effect until the paramedics came. That could have been me. I could have been Jesus to THM. I don’t say this with a Messianic mentality, but rather, I say this ashamedly as I knew what Jesus would do. I could even envision it! But yet, I failed to fulfill this vision. I failed to be employed by compassion but remained still with what? 9:50 am. 20 minutes late.
I came late to work and didn’t plan on explaining why to my supervisor. My demeanor was sullen and was obvious to her so she asked what had happened. I explained the above and her assistant explained, “That’s New York.” I grew up in Queens and Long Island and went to NYU. I’ve seen many things but nothing quite like this. The scene was all too familiar: homeless person, drunken stupor. subway platform, Penn Station. These things are New York. When tourists come to visit, these things are New York to them as much as New York natives are New York to them. If we’re nice, they say, “New Yorkers are so much nicer than I thought!” If we’re mean, they say, “New Yorkers are just as mean as I thought!” If they see a New Yorker help a homeless person, they say, “New Yorkers are so compassionate.” I wonder how many tourists looked on with me that morning. On that crowded subway platform in Penn Station at around 9:15 am to 9:50 am, I was an inactive, compassion-less version of New York but I was certainly not Jesus in any fashion. No action was taken except to expel The Homeless Man from our collective morning commute. On to work as usual. What kind of New York will I be next time?