Life is all about choices. That is pretty obvious. One thing that’s impossible to miss here is homelessness, and that also presents us with choices.
Today on the train, there was a woman who started making a speech as soon as the door closed. Her name was Alexis. She was a 33-year-old homeless female. A few years ago, she lost her home, her daughter and her grandmother in a fire. Since then, she has been in and out of shelters, riding the train. She did not steal. She hadn’t had anything to eat since the morning before. Could we please help her get a meal?
That was her speech. It was hard not to look at her and feel really sorry for her, but I didn’t know what choice to make. I had an entire dinner in my bag, since I was planning on eating in the park. I had a few dollars, too. Should I have given her a granola bar? We arrived at my stop before I could make a decision. As I left the station, I felt guilty. I didn’t need that granola bar in my purse. Why didn’t I give it to her? Was it because if I gave it to her I’d feel like I needed to give to every homeless person begging on the street or on the train? Does that even really matter? Or was it because part of me didn’t trust her? Did I think she would misspend the money I might give her?
A few days ago, there was a man in the Times Square stop asking people coming down the steps for a dollar for the train. I had just won some tickets so I was feeling good. I gave him a buck, and he was very thankful. I had seen a man before me give him a dollar, too, so I assumed he only had $0.25 to go until he had enough fare. It happened that I returned to that same stop about an hour later and the guy was still there, still asking passersby to give him a dollar for the train. That kind of put a bad taste in my mouth–was he really going to spend the dollar I gave him on the train to go home? Or was he going to spend it on something else, something I assumed would be less positive on his road out of poverty. There was no way I could know, but it made me feel a bit like my small kindness had perhaps been misused. Maybe I’m making assumptions; maybe his train was a path train to Jersey. That seemed unlikely, though.
So, when I saw Alexis on the train, a tiny voice wondered aloud if she would be using any money she received on something other than food. I had seen women like her on the subway before. One had flat out asked for food, though, not for money. “If you have any leftovers, please consider sharing them with me. I am diabetic and I have to feed my family, but shelter food is not enough.” Maybe I would have been more inclined to give had she just asked for food, but I guess she would take what she could get.
One of the greatest lessons in my life that I have learned is that a little kindness can go a long way. Cliche, perhaps, but absolutely true. Tonight, for example, I had a really nice cabbie. He was a Haitian immigrant who lost some relatives in Haiti, but was still hopeful for the future. He was confident that the universe still has a plan for him, and even in the face of disasters (hurricane was his choice of words) we would do what we were meant to do on this earth. His kindness to me was sharing nice conversation, and reminding me how small that kindness can be to brighten someone’s day. Maybe next time I’m on the subway and I hear someone’s story, I will make a different choice.