Mid winter. New York City. The sky was dark and hard. Sharp cold sliced through the seams of my thick woolen coat, weaseled through the pores of my leather gloves. I'd spent the evening in the library, and now, racing against the late night cold, pressing bookbag to chest, I ran to board the subway. The Red Line: it stretched from Harlem, through the city's Upper West Side where I went to school, and down toward the Lower East Side where I lived. As I sat down , my eyes started to burn with the sudden switch from night's cold cutting wind to the train's warm, stale air.
Like all New York's subways, the Red Line usually carries a thousand themes of humanity. But not tonight. Tonight it carried only one man and me.
The train had screeched through half a dozen stops before I noticed him in a nearby seat. He wore a cumbersome gray-blue coat, ventilated with a dozen holes, belted with rags. Legs sprawled, head bent forward, masses of woolly black hair pressed against one knee. His right arm clutched two bulky bags that sat beside him and cushioned him like kind old ladies. The other arm hung limp between his legs, long thick fingers dangling like weary overweight dancers. Safety pins secured the seams of his green pants - pants that hung short of bare ankles that were swollen with cold, chalked white from the salt and ice of winter streets and sidewalks. Tie shoes, lacking laces and too big in size, encased his sockless feet.
Curiously, I felt empathy more than pity for this survivor who had apparently come to the subway for heat and rest, and who was now, almost contentedly, sucking wisps of warm air into his throat. I wondered what sort of jolt in his life's journey had brought him here. I couldn't see his face, but somehow I recognized him--or recognized in him my own desire to survive the harsher chapters of life. And as I watched him, I marveled at his durability, conscious that the jolts in my life were no doubt less enormous than his.
I don't know how long I stared at him, but suddenly I was aware that the train was approaching my stop. I looked at his pathetic shoes, and then down at my own booted feet, knowing that under those boots was a layer of jeans and under those jeans a double padding of wool socks. Socks never seemed so important as they did at that moment, and I found myself trying to figure out if there was time to remove my boots, yank off my socks, offer them to the man and pull both boots back on before the subway reached my destination. But the conductor hit the brakes, and I, feeling a strange desperation to offer something to this man who had asked for nothing, reached into my coat pocket and retrieved its contents: two dollars. It's not much, I thought. But the train was stopping. Hastily I got up, pushed the money deep into one of the man's bags and , apparently unnoticed by him, got off the train. In the days that followed, I occasionally thought about the man, wondered what the face behind all that hair was like, imagined him shuffling through his bag and happening on the money.
When to give, whether to give, is a question everyone who lives or visits New York has to contend with, no matter where in that city of contrasts one lives. I know one fellow who, each morning, tore the want ads out of the paper and stuffed them into his breast pocket. When approached for handouts on his way to or from work, he would invite the solicitor to a cafe and offer to help them hunt the ads for work. Most turned down his offer. Occasionally someone accepted. Once someone even got a job. But mostly I've seen myself and others passing by extended hands like priests and Levites on the road to Jericho.
One builds up defenses in a big city, and develops self-survival blinders that are not easily penetrated. The needs of people can be so desperate, so constant, that one closes her eyes because she imagines that to open them is to be overwhelmed. Once, while walking down Second Avenue in my neighborhood, I saw ahead of me people detouring around something on the sidewalk. When I reached the detour I discovered they were all avoiding a body sprawled on the pavement. I, too, walked around the figure. For the next two blocks and all the way up my apartment steps, I thought of that man. I took off my coat and hung it up, all the while chiding myself with the question, How much effort would it have taken to hoist the fellow up and sit with him at the corner cafe over a warm drink? I put my coat back on, ran down the steps and hurried to the corner where I'd passed the man. But he was gone. Had he pulled himself up? Had someone with more courage and heart than I happened by? My friend with his want ads?
Two weeks after encountering the man who'd been sleeping on the train, I again turned into an Upper West Side subway entrance. Glancing down the stairwell, I spotted a figure crowned with a mass of woolly black hair. He wore a cumbersome gray-blue coat, held together with rags. I called hello to that familiar coat, and the man inside it looked up. Somehow the face, not just the clothing, seemed familiar. I skipped down the steps as if an old friend waited for me at the bottom. I walked up to the man and heard myself ask, ''Do you need money for the subway?'' Somewhat startled, he responded by opening his palm and revealing a handful of small change. ''I don't need all of it; I already have 15 cents,'' he told me. Responding to the strength, as well as the struggle in that outreached hand, I gave him the balance - and he, with that face I somehow knew so well, gave me a smile.
I'd recognized the man, even before I'd seen his face.