The other week, when it was still freezing, a tall, gaunt man walked onto the packed subway car at 42nd Street with no shoes or socks on his feet. He had black curly hair like Jesus that fell in long tendrils around the stiff upturned collar of his dirty green puffy jacket. His face was not unlike Jesus's either. In a tired-sounding, yet unwavering voice, the man said that he had AIDS and no where to go. His feet were long and skinny, flat and olive in tone in the middle and chapped and shiny around the edges. I felt those around me shift as they turned to look as well. We'd been packed like sardines since Wall Street, enough time to have already burned through the initial hatreds that spring up between strangers crowded on top of one another.
As the man spoke the motor rattled like it was going to break apart and two babies screamed relentlessly.
When he finished he held out his can and started walking down the aisle, at which point something happened and the feeling in the car changed. What it was exactly I don't know--but you could feel it radiating up and down the rows of people. It was a mix of happiness and relief, like we were letting loose and celebrating some one's life after a long hard day spent at their funeral. Suddenly everyone was reaching over one another with wadded up bills...the sight of the green was surprising and seemed somehow fake at first--dollar after dollar being stuffed into his can, "God Bless You, God Bless You!" the man was saying, over and over in stunned amazement.
I've never seen such a response to a pan handler. The compulsion to give to him was overwhelming, and the instant I handed bills over to him all the rest of my money become meaningless tissue, as did all of the things it could buy.
He stumbled off the train at 59th street--had he stayed much longer and there would have been a pile of iPods and shopping bags and credit cards at his bare feet.
The doors opened at 86th Street and I wanted for nothing.