I believe the world depends on the helping hands of strangers. Recently, on a summer bus trip just like hundreds that leave from the parking lots of department stores, travel agencies, and community centers, I rode to New York City for a Saturday visit. Upon arrival, my girlfriend and I immediately began looking for a clean public restroom after our well-hydrated journey; not an easy task for two out of town tourists in Midtown Manhattan. As our urgency grew, we spotted a large chain bookstore on Park Avenue and shuffled quickly in that direction. Just before crossing the street for relief, we passed a homeless man on the sidewalk bearing a sign with a simple plea: “please help.” My eyes guiltily shifted away from him as we rushed past, but almost unconsciously, I snuck a glance. When I did, he was looking towards me peacefully, recognizing the probability of my neglect. His face was hardened by a difficult truth; he was suffering and I could have helped him.
The reality was that I did nothing. I used the bathroom in the bookstore without rebuke, hassle, or wayward glance because my clothes were clean and I was well-groomed and fed. I didn’t even buy anything. I left the store to visit an art museum, take in a Broadway show, and eat heartily in an air-conditioned restaurant. My thoughts didn’t return to the homeless man until the ride home when I realized I had been too caught up in my own touristic agenda to help a stranger.
Since I was a kid, I’ve had ingrained the many reasons to avoid the homeless; “They could be dangerous.” “Most of them will just take your change to the liquor store or save it for a fix.” “Those bums probably make more than I do in a week in a day on the street.” Indeed, in my travels I’ve come across many a pot-bellied panhandler and heard the entrepreneurial con folk ask me for a few dollars to get them here or there or to finance the solution to some other worthy dilemma. As for the man on Park Avenue, there was no polished sales pitch or jingling change jug. He didn’t plead or beg. His simple sign and desperate glance were authentic appeals. A helpful offering had myriad potential: a kind word… a sandwich… a bottle of water… a couple bucks from my wallet… anything to offer just a moment of comfort to a man whose hope and essence drained visibly into the breezy subway grates below his haggard figure.
On the ride home, I couldn’t help but think as I watched my fellow travelers with their shopping bags and bellies full, playbills in hand, that if some of us could do with a little less, perhaps we all could have a bit more. The next time my hand could help a stranger in need, I hope I won’t hesitate to offer it.
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