Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Man on the Train

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So I was riding home on the train after class last night and there was a man sleeping soundly on a corner seat.  It was obvious to me that he's been on the streets a long time and has worked hard to keep himself warm and self-sufficient, and that he's learned a few things about basic survival. The bag by his feet was covered in plastic to keep it dry, but was torn and tied and things were kind of messy and poking out but contained. I thought about what might be in it, and remembered the story I read about the people the cops rousted out from under a bridge in some city, backhoe-ing all their personal belongings into dumpsters like so much trash, photos of loved ones and social security cards and IDs, an extra pair of socks and their blankets and sleeping bags, maybe their kid's stuffed animal, I don't know, all their possessions, everything they owned, which wasn't much in terms of quantity.  I don't know what was in this man's bag, but his boots were black rubber and not very thick, and he'd stuffed newspaper in them at some point for the extra insulation. I only know this because one of the heels was gone and you could see right inside it, and the sole was barely still attached to the boot.

He was dozing as we rode, but not "sleeping it off," because there was no smell of alcohol.  He had a blue jacket on over a few layers of sweaters, a good thick hat, maybe two unless that was his hair, and an old brown leather jacket with lots of pockets he'd rigged up over his thighs. I think his overpants were rubber or vinyl, and they were old and cracked. He looked like he'd been riding the train a while, staying warm and getting some shut-eye, just waiting till the end of the night when the T employees would kick him off at one. Then he'd probably walk a few hours till the sun comes back up, not because he has anywhere to go, but just to keep from freezing to death.  It was cold out last night. His hands looked OK, not dry and cracked like some of the hands I'd seen in the cold of winter, but his nails needed a trim and a cleaning. Last time I was out with The Outdoor Church, it was people's hands that got to me - red and raw and cracked and dry, so vulnerable. For two days I fantasized about going back out with a big jar of lotion to slather them all in cocoa butter, protect them from the bitter wind and the overexposure to the cold, hook them all up with some decent gloves and not the thin little polyester ones we had.  But it's their feet, hidden away behind shoes, that are often a mess. They are vulnerable, too, if you don't take care of them, and they will be ruined by the cold and the damp and being on them all day in dirty socks.  Your feet are everything when you live on the streets, and good socks are so critical. 

As I sat across from this man on the rattling train, wondering what his daily life is like and who once loved him, I had to force myself not to a) burst into tears in this very public place because no one should have to live like this, b) keep my mouth shut and not yell out to the other passengers, "For God's sake, can't we DO something for this man?!" or c) wake him up to see if my boots would fit him, get him to try them on.  I mentally scanned my bag, my pockets, and found I had nothing to ease his suffering, not a candy bar, not a dollar, not a phone number of a place to call.  I found myself eyeing his feet, measuring mine against his, the size of them, and then the feet of the other passengers wondering if THEY had boots that would fit him, because I would have gladly traded them mine.  I didn't care if I walked barefoot out of the train station...that would have been a temporary condition and I had a ride waiting. I would have happily walked through the snow that one time, if it meant he wouldn't have to ever again. Those boots I have are sturdy and built to keep out the wet and the cold. His are not, but I have tiny feet and he doesn't.

But instead of doing any of that, crying or yelling or giving away my shoes, I just sat and prayed for him, asked God to please bless this man, to please help him, to take him Home if that was where he needed to be, but to please just bless him.  And you know, I was very aware that prayer is a really nice gesture and can sometimes be truly powerful and life transforming, but even after my prayers, he still has to walk around in those busted up boots that don't keep his feet dry.  Sometimes prayer is just not enough.

When I got off the train to meet my son, I couldn't hold the tears in anymore because I couldn't help the guy, and because in a parallel universe that could be me, and because it is me and it is you because we are all one, and I was so grateful to have a loving son waiting for me with a car with gas in it, and a home to go to with my kids and granddaughter and cats and heat and food and a bed and love and a job, and that man on that train has a name and is somebody's son, and maybe he's a father and has his own grown kids and grandkids somewhere, who think about him and wonder where he is sometimes, and maybe he, too, once had a home and people who loved him and yet, there he is riding the train on a snowy winter's night to nowhere, alone.  I felt like a fool for crying over a stranger...but my son gave me a big hug even though he didn't know why I was crying so hard, and then when I told him why, he didn't laugh at me for crying.   He just said, "Ma, you're sensitive, you think differently about other people, you care about them. Most people don't."  

And it's his observation that "most people don't" that really, really makes me cry.