Discourse on the Concourse (on Christmas Day)
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” ~ Carl Sagan
I had just arrived at the subway station, the UB South Campus Station (University at Buffalo). It was the evening of Christmas Day, I was on my way home from one of my sister’s house and was surprised how many people were in the station. I had never taken public transport on Christmas, at least not since I was a little kid when our entire family used it. But I’m jumping ahead, here’s a bit of the back story.
A few weeks ago I reserved a ZipCar which was close to where I live, just a couple blocks away. I needed the car because my sister lives about 25 miles from me. Then, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I was awakened by the buzz of my cellphone, I had gotten a text. Looking at it I see that because of “unexpected circumstances” they had changed my reservation. Now, instead of the reserved car being just a couple blocks from my house, the new car was in a parking lot at UB South Campus, about 6 miles from my house. I called ZipCar but to no avail; the car I had originally reserved had a problem and, being a holiday, the only available car was at the new location. On the way to my sister’s house, my son gave me a lift to the car, but returning the car that evening I had to take the subway the remainder of the way. This is how I found myself at the UB South Campus station on the evening of Christmas Day.
So there I was, standing at the ticket machine fumbling for my wallet with two pizza pans and a bag of Christmas cookies under one arm. Then I heard him, and he was a bit too close, I didn’t see him walk up, “Excuse me sir, can I have a dollar?” No, I told him, as I slid a dollar into the slot of the machine; it was wrinkled and the machine spit it back out. “Please,” he pleaded, “it’s Christmas.” Still without looking at him as I was fumbling with the machine, I simply said no, that I couldn’t. The dollar was refused again. I knew what I had in my wallet, a $20 and two singles. The subway cost $2 so I needed the two singles, and I wasn’t going to give away my only $20 even on Christmas. The irony, I suppose, is that I couldn’t get the singles “to work,” at least not the wrinkled one.
“Do you believe in Jesus,” the man now asked? What, I questioned, as the first wrinkled bill was finally accepted. He repeated it again. It’s complicated, I told him. So he asked again, “Sir, do you believe in Jesus?” Now, frustrated, but at the same time the second bill was accepted into the machine and my ticket administered to me, I finally looked at him and snapped, Yes I believe in Jesus for Christ’ sake, and I realized how silly that sounded as the words left my mouth.
When I looked at him I was astounded. He was cold, that’s for sure, but he was also younger than his appearance seemed. He looked tired. He looked old. It showed in his eyes the most. If you’ve been to this blog before you know that I am not immune to giving money to the poor and homeless, even a $20 on a rare occasion, but I knew that giving this guy money would only be feeding his habit, whatever that was. Now facing each other, he pleaded again, “Mister, I am cold and hungry, can’t you please give me some money. It’s Christmas.” He was pulling at my heart strings and he knew it. So many biblical passages were going through my head regarding helping the poor, but still I couldn’t do it. Look, I finally told him, I am not going to give you any money, and I am really sorry. I could still hear him pleading as I descended the escalator to the subway platform.
When the train arrived I was surprised how warm it was inside, I was cold, but now thankful. There was a mother and young daughter sitting across from my. The girl was snuggled into her mother with her baby doll, likely a Christmas gift, I thought. The mother and daughter looked so content I would have liked to take their picture. And as the subway rumbled along I couldn’t help but think of the various worlds we all inhabit. A half-hour earlier I was safely ensconced in my sister’s warm home in a Rockwellesque Christmas setting, then my world collided with the young desperate man at the station. Different worlds, I thought. One is not better than the other (maybe more appealing, but not “better”). And then there was the mother and daughter across from me. When I looked at them I felt peace. Christmas peace. I could have ridden the subway all night. But my stop came a few minutes later, and I was once again thrust out into the cold blustery night. As I leaned into the sharp wind on my short walk home I wondered where that man would sleep tonight. I also wondered if I shouldn’t have given him some money.
When I arrived home I shivered as my two dogs greeted me as if I were gone for weeks. There were a few glowing embers left in the wood stove so I put a log on them. As the first flames licked at the log, I looked around at my humble little and disheveled home, and I felt grateful. And as I watched the fire grow and could feel it’s warmth, I pet my dogs and said a prayer for the man I met, but the prayer then became directed at all of us.