This morning as I was waiting for the bus, I witnessed an interaction that has been aching in my heart. As I ducked under the vestibule from the misty morning, I was approached by a man asking for change or bus fare.
The area where I catch the bus is right near Suburban Station, a busy commuter hub in Center City Philadelphia, and every day on my way to and from school, I can almost certainly guarantee I will encounter one or two panhandlers. This always pulls at my conscience and stokes the angry fire deep inside of me at injustice in our world. Men and women sleeping in church doorways, begging for spare change, or wandering around aimless and lost. They are as part of my commuter landscape as the Comcast Tower or City Hall.
He had dark, dirty skin, and the stench of whiskey kicked me in the back of the throat. His clothes appeared slept in, probably second-hand. He looked tired and distraught, and I didn’t recognize him from the “usual suspects” on my walk. He was actively approaching every single person that passed by: “Excuse me sir… Miss… I just need… Can I just…”
My typical response is to look the person directly in the eye and say, “I’m sorry. I have nothing on me.” Most of the time this is true. I don’t carry cash very often (to the deep consternation of my Father), and I only use a Trail Pass for commuting on the Regional Rail, so I rarely have extra tokens on me.
Yet this is also my answer even when I have a few bills in my wallet. Perhaps city living has made my cynical, but I always wrestle with the question that likely plagues many people in my situation: how can I know this money won’t go to alcohol or drugs? There are other, better-equipped organizations that can use my money more wisely and more effectively.
So my typical response became my response to this man. He continued pressing others.
Another man came to the vestibule, around my age, white, professionally dressed. The man approached him.
“Excuse me, sir. Can you spare anything, cash, bus fare, anything?”
“I’m really sorry, I don’t have anything on me.”
The man turns to try someone else.
“Wait… let me check my bag to see if I have any spare tokens.”
“Oh thank you! Thank you so much.”
He digs in his bag. In one pocket. In another. “I am so sorry. I don’t have any.”
“It’s okay. Sorry to bother you.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
The man bums a cigarette off a woman. Tries to light it, fails. Tries to light it again, succeeds. As he blows smoke, it drifts toward the other man and myself, so he waves his hand. “Sorry. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” says the professional looking guy. “Where are you trying to get to?”
“I have to get to… To North Philadelphia. Ol… Olney.”
“What’s going on with your family? I heard you say something about your family?”
“It’s my… my Mom… She’s dying.” He breaks down in tears. The other man simply frowns and nods his head. “I am just so… I don’t know if I can keep it together. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” He waves the smoke away. “Sorry. I just really needed this,” indicating the cigarette.
“Believe me, I understand,” says the other man.
“I don’t mean to bring you down, man. I’m sorry…”
The other man looks right at him and says, “You have nothing to apologize for. It’s pretty clear you are hurting.”
A couple of minutes pass. The man tries to approach a couple of other people. No results. Then something remarkable took place.
“Here, take this,” says the man, holding out his commuter pass. I have the same pass. It is a monthly pass that will pretty much get the person holding it anywhere in the city. The man looks at him, takes it and breaks down.
“Thank you. Thank you.” He wraps his arms around the other man. “Just, thank you.” He backs up, then pulls forward for another hug. They shake hands.
“Just go right to your Mom, okay? Get to her. Be with her.”
They hug again. “What’s your name, man?”
“Eric. It’s Eric.”
“Eric, I will be praying for you. And your Mom.”
Eric walked off.
I want to be that person in all of my interactions. To give freely, even joyfully. To give even if it hurts. That guy wasn’t able to get on the bus, and he ended up walking. I have no idea if he was going three blocks or three miles.
The question that burned in my mind was, how does he know that was the right thing to do?
I guess the answer is, he doesn’t. He has to trust that God will work in that situation to make it a better outcome for everyone. Did Eric turn around and sell that card (good for three more days) for whatever he could get so he could get another pint? I don’t know. Only Eric and God know. But my prayer is that he got on the Broad Street Line up to Olney so he could see his dying mother.
I ended up walking to school, and as I passed by the usual tapestry of the commute, my heart just continued to break for all of the dispossessed I pass by every day. My eyes watered at the injustice that plagues our world. But I also was uplifted and hopeful, that when we sacrifice out of our plenty, others might have enough.