My initial reaction was to hold my breath. I sucked in the stale New York subway air like a five year old about to dive in the deep end of a ten foot pool. I figured I could last 10 to 15 seconds. At least, long enough for the homeless man in the thick, seaweed colored smock to move past me on the E train. But he stopped and rested against the silver support poll and started to speak. I swore silently. I braced myself, exhaled, and breathed in, preparing myself for a gust of odor circa 2007. Thankfully, the air was clear. As clear as the E train can be at 2:30pm.
“I’m sorry for disturbing you this afternoon,” The man began. His tone was firm and his words were clear. He’d done this more than once in his life. Still, an underlying shame seeped through is words. “If you can find it in your heart to help me help my family, I really do appreciate it. Anything. A nickel. A penny. Anything that you could give.”
I shut my ears. Scenarios like this play out hundreds of times in subways. I suspect that if I was new to underground encounters like this, it would be a mildly awkward, potentially frightening experience. I knew better. The man would not turn violent. He would not linger. He simply will ask, walk, and move into the next car. If he was feeling gracious, he’d wish us happy holidays.
The key to riding the subway is perfecting your stare; the emptying of your face of emotion and reaction. Try it. Sit slightly back and slump your shoulders a bit. Project a casual disconnection to your surroundings. Keep your head up and look straight ahead. Looking down only says you are too frightened to look at other people. Which isn’t the case. You look straight ahead. You’re not afraid of looking around. You choose simply not to.
Few things really affect me anymore. Not at this point. Obese clowns in drag. Guys flashing pictures of their erection on their camera phone. It all adds up to an non-affecting blur. I see nothing really. At least, so no one would notice. I’ve also seen one of the most beautiful women in the world. She was Hispanic, wearing a black dress on a Friday night with her friends. Her teeth were Hollywood white. She wore thick red lipstick. Stunning, stunning girl. But no one knew what I was thinking. Because my stare stayed the same.
So in moments like this, with a man, clearly destitute and humble enough to admit, asking for help, I do nothing. Besides, I reasoned, I was wearing skinny jeans. I knew I couldn’t get up to wiggle my fingers in the nonexistent pockets and find the change from my bagel and cream cheese.
But I do have a heart. My stare might be perfected, but I can’t shut off my hearing. So I reacted. While the man repeated over, “A Nickel, a penny, anything to help me help my family”, holding out a worn coffee cup, I simply turned my music up. Vampire Weekend.
The man made his way down the aisle. A Spanish guy handed him a sandwich of coins. I tried to add up the amount. Probably 36 cents. Maybe more. Others followed suit.
Bastards. They make the rest of us look bad. Indifference requires solidarity.
The woman in a blue blazer held out a small pamphlet. I recognized it. “Do you know what would happen when you die?” was plastered on the cover. She stuffed it in the cup and smiled. The man walked on, pausing slightly, but decided to move on.
It’s called a Tract. Tracts are small, wallet sized pamphlets that churches hand out. They have a few different purposes. Generally, they are designed to explain the fate of our eternal souls in 500 words. They use the Trinity of Bible verses.
Romans 3:23- For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
John 3:16- For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.
Acts 2:21- “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”
Some are illustrated. Some are funny. All add up the same way: Sin and die. Repent and be saved.
They don’t leave much impact, except when they’re left on seats and people are too lazy and/or cool to pick them up so they can have a seat.
“You’re a hypocrite.”
A 50 something, skinny white woman, who had been on her Blackberry, spoke angrily, addressing the Evangelist.
“How do you go about, handing this man, no money. No food. But are so arrogant to tell him you can give him religion. This man doesn’t need religion. He needs a meal.”
“I gave him what I could, ma’am. Jesus said not to worry about what could kill the body. But what could kill the soul.”
(Ah, the classic “Would you rather be cold on earth or warm in hell?”)
“You are so out of line.”
“Some people give money. Some people ignored this man. This is what I believe. It’s the greatest gift I can give this man. And I hope he reads it and lets it change his life.”
“A person doesn’t worry about the afterlife when he doesn’t have heat at night.”
“Everyone can give what they have. Don’t let this bother you. It’s an act of love, what I did. Perhaps it offends you, because you feel guilty on what you gave or did not give, when I gave the best I could. And am content with that.”
The conversation continued, but I grew bored with what I heard. They debated on who gave the better gift. I went back to my music. I was getting off in two stops anyway. But in my mind, I imagined planes flying over African villages, loving dropping thousands of little Tracts over huts, over naked orphans. But I figured, if the plane was high up enough, for a few moments, they’d come down, looking like anorexic angels.