The coffee in the morning keeps me awake when I need to be awake.
The red wine at night makes me sleepy when I need to be sleepy.
But what happens when there is no coffee or red wine? Who do we become when we can’t go numb?
On Tuesday, I was walking home from my subway stop.
I pass over this concrete island on 14th Street and 1st Avenue by way of a frenetic and busy pedestrian walkway. It’s TOTAL NYC CHAOS!
On this island was a homeless man, mid 60’s, with a walker. He had stopped there. I noticed he was crying and pleading for help.
I slowed down and put a dollar in his bag.
This homeless man said, “I don’t need money!”
So I paused, sort of. I was soooo ready to keep walking, like everyone else passing us by.
“What you do need?” I asked.
It’s hard to see another human being crying.
He kept saying out loud, “Somebody please help me.”
I picked up the phone and called 911, explaining to the operator that this desperate homeless man needed help.
But again, he said to me, “I don’t need an ambulance. I don’t need money. I need help.”
Another lady stopped and kindly asked, “What do you need help with?”
Mind you, scores of New Yorkers were streaming by, totally ignoring this crying man. I’m not trying to paint myself as a hero. I also wanted to get home!
I couldn’t figure out if he was deranged. But there was something startling and authentic about the tears streaming down this poor man’s cheeks. He was helpless like a young child.
I noticed his pants were almost down to his ankles.
His arm was injured, his body was frail, and he didn’t have the strength to pull up his pants and tie the string to tighten them.
Let me repeat that. All he wanted was someone to help him pull his pants up and tie them around his waist.
It was 11 degrees on Tuesday. The poor guy was not just humiliated, he was freezing.
To think that at some point, this was somebody’s innocent child. How did it come to this?
I reached down and pulled his pants up and tied them around his waist.
It haunted me the rest of the night.
I expected this homeless man needed money or emergency assistance. But really what he needed was somebody’s attention.
And for most of us, myself included, giving attention to a stranger is just not gonna happen. We can barely pay attention to our families and co-workers, let alone a homeless person.
Attention is exhausting. It takes energy. It takes time. It requires us to stop. And who has time to STOP?!
It’s no longer about GOLD and OIL. Today’s most precious commodities are ATTENTION and SILENCE.
If you have those in great abundance, you have something very special on your hands.
So I ask you, or beg you…teach me how you do it.
Because when there’s a crying man in the middle of a great city, and I barely barely barely had the wherewithal to stop, I must be lost.
We can pretend that Anderson Cooper, Oprah, or Anthony Bourdain will take us there and show us what we need to see.
But it’s only when we see, firsthand, the desperation that much of humanity endures….
…that we remember:
Each day, we interact with the same handful of people and have the same conversations in the same places. It’s hard to grow.
On the rare occasion that we venture beyond, we learn more in two seconds than our sphere of influence can teach us in two years.
I never, ever enjoyed my red wine, my family, and my warm bed so much as I did on Tuesday night.