Recently I took one of my granddaughters, age 10-1/2, for her first visit to New York City. Together we took in the city skyline from the Staten Island Ferry, fell silent at the 9/11 Memorial, and laughed and cried through Wicked. One day we made stops at Tiffany’s, the American Girl Store, and F.A.O. Schwarz. That evening I watched her ice skate (while it was snowing!) at Rockefeller Plaza. Another day we wandered for hours through MoMA where she delighted in seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a painting which has enchanted her since she was small. What a joy it was for me to witness her seeing that beloved picture “in person”!
As we moved about the city, we walked a lot and occasionally hailed a cab, but it was while riding the subway that we had our most poignant New York experience. The car was crowded, everyone wearing gloves and hats and wrapped in many layers because of the day’s freezing temperatures. In spite of how closely packed we were, a woman was slowly making her way through the aisle of the car towards where my granddaughter and I stood clutching the poles for balance as the train rattled through the dark tunnel. Ahead of herself, the woman maneuvered a walker on wheels. With each step, she begged for spare change—for food, she said—and every two or three steps, she broke into tearful sobs. Though most of the riders were strangers to one another, the moment we shared was excruciatingly intimate, for the woman’s suffering was quite real—and very close.
So real and so close that at first I wished I could shield my granddaughter from it. But there was no room to move away, no place to hide, nothing to do but to bear witness to the woman’s gut-wrenching distress. I later realized, of course, that poverty, both economic poverty and poverty of spirit, is as much a part of the pulse of that city—of any city—as its “must see” highlights. In fact, though it is not listed in travel guides, if we are to be fully human, it too is something we must all see.
But alongside the woman’s embodiment of poverty, we also saw small acts of kindness and generosity. A few hands reached out to give her some money. Whether that was wise or not is debatable, though it was at the very least a way to acknowledge her presence among us. However, the response that lingers most vividly with me was this: a man, several decades older than the woman and of a different race, reached into the brown paper bag on his lap and handed her an orange from his lunch. That orange passing from his hand to hers remains one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I saw on our trip.
And so my prayer is for the subway riders, which is to say, for each and every one of us as we hurtle through our days. While our needs vary (and unlike the woman’s, are often hidden away, even from ourselves), are we not all beggars in one way or another? And at the same time, don’t we all have something we can share with our companions on the journey, even when those companions are mostly strangers, and even when all we can give at the moment is as small—and as miraculous—as an orange?