Humans are never a bore. An annoyance maybe when it comes to common sense, or a disappointment when it comes to morality, but there's nothing to get you thinking and feeling more than the human race. Sure, teacup-sized animals with pillow soft fur might make you awww a bit and the mysteries and deep open spaces of unexplored nature have you marveling, but the flesh and blood that we brush shoulders with daily, or the funny habits we squint our eyes at when we are privileged enough to catch a quick glance, never cause a dull moment. Especially in New York, where the time gaps in between memorable human encounters is almost as short as our patience being in close quarters with them.
This week alone has been full of blog-worthy encounters and non-encounters with the city's quiet inhabitants, and it's been fascinating.
For instance, there was the scruffily dressed, dreadlocked man in line at the Bank of America on 7th Avenue, whose staff know him on a first name basis. As the queue inches forward slowly, he's gabbing on about his admittedly unexpected culinary profession, about the exceptional tequila-soaked chops with a lime finish that I wish he'd detail more for my personal learning benefit. I've learned he's a liquor-based chef preparing to spend some time in Portugal perfecting their cuisine with his cooking styles, and he really wants to stay within the Bank of America family, but up until now, he hasn't found a sister bank. "I specialize in couples dinners," he says to the chubby attendant in the slick gray suit, who, by now, is day dreaming about what he and the Mrs. would like to have for dinner. His wedding band subtly glistening as he idly swings his left hand, moving with every new detail about the apple juice brine he soaked his steak in. "Apple juice isn't acidic," Chef says before asking the stern-faced tellers hiding behind bullet proof glass to crack a smile for him. "So it won't absorb into the meats like lemon or lime will." My friend and I laugh as we exit the toasty lobby into the cold, warmed not only by the building's powerful vents but by this man's bright optimism on a frigid day.
Then there was the London man beside me who begged me for a "moment of good fortune" or something or other. Asking for help reading the subway directions on his iPhone. He had a cleft lip, a lisp and a charming enthusiasm to talk to the rigid, headphone-wearing New Yorker he just softened for a bit of convo. "You know, it's always great coming heaah because New Yorkers all want to get out, when all Londoners want to do is live heaah." The slant of his accent was comforting and homely, as if I too, was in Queen Elizabeth's land. "I'm on my way to pick up my baby's passport and documents," he volunteered after receiving a friendly but silent smile and nod. "My wife insisted on having our child here in America for citizenship." After a few more words of jolly banter, he left me to the Tink song playing softly into my right ear and allowed my to clog my left with the other earbud. He whipped out an iPad to play a game, but looked up and smiled a genuine goodbye when I got off at Queens Plaza a few stops later to head to work.
Another day, a homeless man I was forewarned about from a friend with a sensitive stomach boarded the conductor's car at Sutphin Blvd. His left foot was missing entirely and the right foot was exposed, cut and infected, a continuous victim of subzero wind chills and a lack of medical attention. He weakly wheeled onto the train, hoisting himself thought the doors with a grunt, head low. "I'm so sorry to bother you all," he started. "I'm disabled and I am homeless and I know that's no one's fault but my own." My heart broke, and I wanted so badly to tell him that it wasn't. Pacify the pity in exchange for a smile. "It's just a little too cold out today," he continued, "and all I would like is a hot meal." He clutched his dingy blanket closer to him. I don't believe he had a strong smell, but maybe subconsciously I was holding me breath, a slave to habit and unrealized privilege. As he slowly rolled through the car, as if expecting this to be another dry sweep, a young Desi girl said something softly to him, and he stopped and nodded his head gratefully. She dug into her bag and pulled out two socks, none matching but both warmer than the nonexistent ones he had on. From the other side of the car came an outstretched arm with a piece of pound cake sealed in cellophane. More hands reached out, silently, but with food, change and dollar bills. Mine was one of them. I couldn't see his face as he rolled away, but I could practically feel the slight fulfillment, the joy that for a few moments he was equally as human, receiving aid hand to hand instead of hand to cup. I smiled to myself as brightly but inwardly as I had as I witnessed a girl sit across from a stronger-scented homeless man without moving her seat the other day. It's the little things.
On a trip home from Long Island City, I marveled as a white—more-than-likely-millenial—man at Court Square assembled a wooden coat rack right there on the platform, screws and all, while waiting for the local train, just so he wouldn't have to carry the box home. Quickest hands I've seen operate in the cold without instructions, no less.
Lastly, for the first time ever, I stood in the cold to listen to the same kind of Jehovah's Witnesses we scurry and run from or shutter our windows from when we see them walking in bunches down quiet Saturday blocks, dressed to the nines like carpet salesmen. "The cold makes you think of suffering doesn't it?" I recoiled a bit when she said this, hesitantly turning to scan her face. She was young, taut brown skin like mine, small teeth with natural gaps (a telltale sign of Caribbean or African heritage, to me at least) with added tresses neatly braided to the side, the back stuffed into the hood of her puffy black jacket. Squeezed between her gloved and trembling fingertips were thin blue pamphlets, with JW.com in the bottom right hand corner of the stack that most people refused to take during the day. My hands were firmly planted in my warm pockets and intended to stay there, but I shrugged and laughed an "I guess." She knew the question was awkward and extreme, but she pressed on with her practiced spiel. "When old people complain about the cold, you can tell it comes from a place of suffering, yes?" she ask-told me again. "In the bible, there is a passage that says there's a place of no more cold. No more suffering, isn't that a good thing?"
Coming from a journalistic standpoint, her pitch and angle were reaching, but I nodded to humor her. The Q5 bus was still nowhere in sight. She continued on with her good news talk, saying that people should read their bibles and learn about Jesus for good things to happen. I agreed with her, nodding and offering the kind of smile that you know is done just to be friendly. She stammered, partly from the cold, but mostly from youthful nervousness. I wondered, did her mother put her up to this? Or was this voluntary? The bus pulled up slowly, and my eyes followed it in hopes she'd notice, too, and wrap it up. But then I looked back to her, as she wasn't through yet. "So if you ever need a bible study, you can just go here..." One of those sky blue pamphlets inched closer to me. "Well, I agree but I already have a church home and a Christian family, but thanks for sharing all this." She retracted her hand, accepting defeat but making sure to let me know that JW.com was always available if I changed my mind. Then, after a relaxed pause, she said finally, "And thank you so much for listening to me."
I didn't expect to feel as great as I did in that freezing moment. More than likely, her day was full of rejection, handing out a sheet of biblical paper to a passersby only to see it in the wire trash bin on the next street corner, mixing with spilled cups of milky decaf, crumpled foil with leftover sandwich meat, newspapers and banana peels. More than likely unopened. Or the recipient of many silent treatments, turned up headphone volumes or straight back turns. An ear and five measly minutes of attention were like the spoon full of sugar Mary Poppins sang so gleefully about to dilute a bitter moment. It felt good to be that for someone. Someone just to listen to her and acknowledge her presence, her words, and her genuine love for The Lord without blowing her off or rudely dismissing her. Humbling to say the least.
Humans exhibiting humanity, I live for it.