Last night I stepped onto the train, it was standing room only so I took my place near the door and proceeded to pull out my phone to check the news. A few stops later a man stepped on to the crowded car, waited until the train started and then began speaking. “Hello everyone. Sorry to interrupt. Sorry to bother you on this day. My name is John. I was incarcerated for ten years; I have recently been released but have a felony. I can’t get a job. The clothes I’m wearing are the only ones I own. My last meal was a brownie yesterday from a kind stranger like yourself. I’m here to ask you for help. If anyone has knowledge of a job opportunity, has work for me, I would much appreciate it.”
As the man talked for the next five minutes or so I continued to look through my phone, trying to not listen. I wondered how much of what he was saying was true. I’ve heard this speech at least a dozen times from other men like him, stepping on to train cars. There was something else roaming my mind as well. Something that kept asking me why I’d write him off so quickly; dirty, a bit smelly, and desperate enough for something to put his business out for everyone. Who was this man?
I put myself in his shoes and realized not much separated him from me. Inside pounded, “Talk to him.” I wrestled with that for a bit, wondering what good it would do and what exactly I would say, and even what other people would think of me for talking to him – think I’m a gullible girl who doesn’t realize this is a common occurrence on the trains, that he’s “lying just to get enough money for another fix of whatever his addiction is” as I have heard from others before. And then I wondered what he would think of me talking to him. I wondered if he would think, “Who does she think she is telling me these things.” Just as quickly I thought, “Who do I think I am to not say something?”
I reached out and touched the man’s elbow to get his attention and said, “Excuse me sir.” He turned and looked at me, his eyes were open wide in amazement – that someone would speak directly to him, that someone would tap his elbow; this was not the response he was accustomed to. We talked for a bit, I told him about a home he could stay at that I knew of, a place that would help him get a job, help him get on his feet. Mostly I just tried listen and affirm that I saw him, a person of value and worth.
As this man and I spoke, people started coming up to him handing him things, first came a doughnut, warm and steaming. Next came an entire sandwich, then came a bag of groceries, a bus card, then came cash, and sprinkled in with these were a lot of pats on the back and people saying “God bless you sir.” “There’s hope, you can do this.” His eyes kept getting bigger and bigger and he kept looking at me.
Then came my stop. I shook the man’s hand, “You have a unique story sir. I hope to run into you again one day and hear the next chapter.”