Miracle on 34th Street

It smelled like Christmas. I was out of the office for a rare lunchtime errand, and I had just turned the corner from Madison Avenue onto 34th Street. It hit me like childhood—the scent of pine. I couldn’t believe it as I looked ahead. Wreaths lay piled up on the sidewalk. At least a dozen newly harvested trees were leaning on a makeshift frame along the street. Long disused store windows from B. Altman’s were fully decorated with Christmas scenes. Five minutes later, after my errand, I walked through the scene again. Tourists were snapping photos to paste on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. Clearly the people responsible were getting ready for the holidays extremely early even for money-grubbing New York. Of course, it was all a set for a television shooting. Working in Manhattan is like being on a movie set most of the time.

It isn’t at all unusual to walk through the line of trucks and trailers parked along one of New York’s lesser used cross streets on my way to work. I see set artists working to make a store front look as if a fire had recently broken out there. Famous people lurk inside their trailers until handlers can get them out and away from hoi polloi. We’re all actors here. This isn’t an authentic existence. As I walk through today’s Christmas set, I step past the homeless with their grocery carts full of their worldly possessions. They’re the only ones on this street who aren’t actors.

I’ve been working in Manhattan for six years now. The dizzying extremes of wealth and poverty juxtaposed hard up against one another is disorienting. We would rather live in a fantasy world than help those who are suffering in real time. Yes, there are people who dwell in hells of their own making. I’m not naive. I also know that we create hells for those we don’t like. Those who “underperform” or who don’t value mammon as much as a red-blooded American should. We cast out those who have mental problems and politely ignore them as they rage on the street corner. We do, after all, have to get to work. New York is an experiment in which the virtues and vices of humanity are concentrated and magnified. We then project it onto the silver screen for all to see and covet. But just off the set there are hurting people. They won’t appear on the camera, but they’ll be there after the crew is gone. If we wanted to, amid all these trees and wreaths, we could find a way to help them. We could make this world a better, more authentic place. It’s my Christmas wish that we will.

Thousand Words

I could easily spill a thousand words, but I have no picture. You see, as a tuition-paying parent I seldom carry cash—pin money is a luxury I just can’t afford. I saw the perfect photo-op, but had to walk on by. On my way to work I saw a homeless man in Manhattan. That’s not so rare. In fact, it’s distressingly common. This man had written a sign: “Give me $1 or I’ll vote for Trump.” It was followed by a tasteful laughing face emoticon. Old school. On paper. I would gladly have paid him a dollar to take a picture, but I had no money on me and I was left to remember and ponder the implications of a statement that struck me as rather profound.

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It isn’t at all strange that the homeless have a sense of humor. There’s a deep, deep irony that pervades a nation where even those who follow all the rules end up finding themselves unemployable. Exploitation is the new capitalism. What surprises us is when these dehumanized economic units show they have feelings. I try to read the many signs the homeless write. They’re not so different from me. I’ve sat on the other side of the desk and been told that I’m just not quite what the employer wants. These affable commodities sit on their shelves, expiration dates passed, trying to raise a smile. Perhaps open a wallet. Their stories could be written down, but who would buy such a book? Nobody likes a downer.

The nature of the sign’s threat is worth considering. The dismal science tells us that it’s all about goods and products that change hands. One fervent disciple of this crooked system wants to be our president. He doesn’t pay any taxes, but he’s never had to live in a cardboard box like so much breakfast cereal. And this poor man in front of me is casting the most noteworthy threat that the disenfranchised can—he’ll vote for this travesty if we don’t pay him. The fine interplay of threat, extortion, fear, hopelessness, and humor tell me that I’m in the presence of a man who has a valuable contribution to make. More valuable than that which is being offered to us by the guy who’s been benefitting from our dimes for nearly two decades while giving nothing back. And if I had a single, or even a five, I’d be glad to exchange it for a photo to remind me of what a true American looks like.

Matins

At a certain time of year, around November after the time change, early morning immigrants to Manhattan see the light. As they stumble out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and head to the east, it is as if the sun is rising like a monster from the sea. In Midtown the streets run east-west and the avenues north-south. I trip out onto Eighth Avenue and have to make my way to Madison, and the entire walk is facing into the unrelenting sun. You might think at 7 a.m. this should be no great challenge, but then you would betray the fact that you don’t commute in early. Hundreds of people pour in a human stream out of the Port Authority and head in all directions, many of them east. The streets are crowded and you literally can’t see what’s in front of you. You are, in the words of a young Bruce Springsteen, “blinded by the light.” I’ve watched in fascination as this happens for the past four years now. It isn’t the much touted “Manhattanhenge,” but simply the angle of the sun at this latitude at this time of day. It may be fun for a few minutes, but then you realize how dangerous it might be.

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One of the most basic elements of religion is care for others. Indeed, some religions suggest that you should treat others as more important than yourself. When I was growing up I was taught to think of things from somebody else’s perspective: if you were in that position, would you want someone to do that to you? It’s a message I took to heart and to this day I can’t pass a homeless person without a backstab of guilt for not pulling out my wallet and dropping a dollar or two into their outstretched hands. Having been on the receiving end of a pink slip more than once, I can easily imagine being there. Seeing from another person’s perspective can be dangerous. Not considering that perspective can be even worse.

Those out and about at 7 a.m. are go-getters. Climbers. They get to work early. Some, no doubt, stay late as well. The person walking west has the sun at his or her back. The street in front of them is brilliantly illuminated but not blinding. How many times I’ve nearly collided with them because they don’t realize that those of us going east just can’t see. You have to step into the shadow of a banner or awning or streetlight post just to get a nanosecond of relief and make sure you’re not about to step into a hazard like an open freight door. The photo doesn’t do it justice because if it were truly to show what I see, you’d see nothing at all. Raised as I was I can’t help but think of the beast rising from the sea, and the woman clothed with the sun. And the homeless being awoken by beams far too bright after a night on the streets.

Lazarus, Come Forth

The red-cast face staring down from the giant LCD billboard this side of the Lincoln Tunnel has my attention. Having become an unwitting fan of horror movies, the genre was clear from the creepy, black-eyed gaze that found me even in mass transit. The Lazarus Effect, it said. I stored the information away knowing that it would be a movie I’d have to rent and watch alone—I don’t know many other true fans, and I don’t like going to a theater by myself. Then I started thinking about Lazarus. The man raised from the dead, according to the Gospels. When I was a child I always confused this Lazarus with the one from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I’d never known anybody with that name, and to find it twice in the same book must imply, at some level, that they were the same guy, right? I mean, they’re both dead. So my juvenile thinking went. In the parable Lazarus, whose wounds are licked by dogs, is taken into the comfort of heaven when he dies. The rich man, it turns out, isn’t so lucky.

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This was a bitter cold day. Dressed like I was headed to McMurdo Station rather than central Midtown, I tried to keep my head down as the wind howled through the channels constructed by excess wealth. I am always distressed to see the homeless out and about on such days. I’ve got on more layers than an onion on steroids, and I’m still chilled through. What must it be like to face such weather threadbare? There, on Madison Avenue I saw a dog being taken for a walk. He had on a warm sweater and fancy purple slippers to keep his canine feet from touching the cold ground. That dog was better dressed against the cold than some of the people I’d passed. I thought of the dog licking the sores of Lazarus. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” the rich man cried.

“Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The words are almost as harsh as this wind. We’ve become a society that will spend more readily on our pets than on our compatriots. Dogs, at least the breed I saw on the street, have evolved to grow thick coats. I’ve seen pictures of huskies running across the snow like their wolfen ancestors. Indeed, the wolves, where we’ve not hunted them to extinction, still manage in the winter. But then, there’s the Lazarus Effect. I’m feeling guilty thinking about putting out the money to rent it, several months down the road. There’s a real life Lazarus who could use any spare change right now. And the well-heeled dogs, I’m sure, would be made to turn up their noses from even getting near enough to lick his wounds.

Just Justice

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It was not intentionally because it was Martin Luther King Junior’s alma mater that I chose to attend Boston University School of Theology. King’s legacy there was certainly a perk, but I had found the seminary engaging because it had a rare combination, at least in my limited experience, of academic rigor and a strong sense of social justice. Too often, it seems, academic enterprises become dispassionate and social justice becomes one of those squishy human element sorts of things that really can’t be quantified. We pursue knowledge without really thinking if its impact will be positive or not. At least fair or not. Fairness is a concept rooted in belief, and, as studies of primates show us, it is very deeply embedded in us. What has it to do with academic achievement?

This Martin Luther King day, I’m concerned about how difficult social justice is to find, even in those places where we expect it to reside. Taking second place to doctrine in many churches, social justice is more of an uncomfortable requirement than a true passion. This winter I’ve noticed more and more homeless on the streets. Our “economy” seems to dictate that many have to be losers so that few can be big winners. Instead of helping them out, I see authority figures come along to shoo them out of the way before those who have jobs have to come that way. We don’t want to be reminded that we might lose everything as well. Affluent society requires victims, and we can be very academic about it.

I have to admit to relegating holidays to that mere Monday off work. The relentless wheels of capitalism ever turn, and only with reluctance do our companies grudgingly give us ten days spread throughout the year to recuperate. The next slated holiday comes in May. Will there be social justice by then? With the eventual warming of the air by that season, will we simply blend those without homes into the less well-dressed and pretend that we have achieved a fair society after all? What do we really celebrate today? Is it just another morning to sleep in, or is there something more to it? A dream that won’t be extinguished until fairness is established? Seems like a worthy idea, at least in theory. But until then you’ll find us at our desks, working to keep the system strong. And hopefully, we won’t forget to dream.

June Bugs

On my way to work yesterday, I came upon an overturned June bug clawing at the air, trying to regain its feet.  I’m always in a hurry getting to or from work, but I decided to stop, offering the insect a leaf to grip, and turning it back over.  I knew, as I spied birds flying overhead, that its chances weren’t good.  In the course of nature, insects are radically overproduced because so many get eaten.  In my apartment they can even be a source of sudden terror when they find their way inside.  I knew the June bug was probably nearing the end of its short time on the earth, but as I held out that leaf to it, I knew that in the act of struggling we were one.  That sounds terribly Buddhist of me, I know.  Insects and humans share, on the most basic level, the desire to survive.  Who likes to feel vulnerable—soft, unprotected underbelly exposed to the air?  Defenseless and helpless?  Certainly not this poor beetle.

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Stepping off the bus in New York City, I began my daily power walk to work.  The bus had arrived a few minutes late, and my anxiety level about clocking in works as if it’s on steroids.  I have to buzz past the interesting things happening in the city, the people who merit a second look, the architecture that has an unexpected amount of detail, only to be lost in the overwhelming number of buildings.  Big buildings as numerous as bugs on a summer morning.  Then I saw a box pulled up on a low sill outside some swank bank.  I often need boxes at work, and I can’t help stopping to appreciate how this unbroken expanse of paperboard would be useful.  Then I noticed the feet sticking out the end.  There was life in this box, not so different from the beetle I’d stopped to help an hour and a half ago, in its exoskeleton, grasping for some kind of salvation.

I arrived at work agitated. I had been able to help the beetle, but what could I do for the sleeping human being in his box? I had no money in my pocket, and even a twenty would stay the exposed, raw human on the city street for no more than a few hours. To care for a person takes commitment, long-term willingness to make sure that those who fall on their backs are set again on their feet, given the resources, the opportunities they need to get along in a world where those circling above are far more dangerous than the birds in my neighborhood. I looked at my calendar. June is nearly over. The June bugs will soon disappear. And yet I couldn’t erase the image from my mind. How much relief seemed to show on that inexpressive June bug face when it could finally crawl away from the center of the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong here. And a man was sleeping in a box just two blocks away. In the act of struggling we are one.