“I have a room,” she said. “Saturday I will move in. My church is paying for it. I’m here today and tomorrow, hopefully that will give me enough to get an air mattress, and then I will never do this again.” I wished her luck, and I walked away, feeling moved by the interdependence all humans have on each other, and with a deeper understanding of just how much we get when we give.
It started three weeks ago. I was down, feeling hurt, and upset about the unfairness of life, while at the same time feeling guilty for having those feelings which were thankfully not justified. But I was sad and hurt, and knowing that I ought not to be only made me feel guilty, not better. These thoughts were with me the day I met her, and filled my mind whenever I was not occupied with something else to distract me. So it was on the half hour subway ride to my afternoon classes that these thoughts and feelings filled my head and heart, and stayed with me as I exited the subway turnstile.
On the way out of the station, I noticed a woman collecting. She was holding a cardboard sign that I did not read, and was wearing a bulky coat and scarf covering part of her face, to protect her from the cold, and perhaps from the shame of begging. I ignored her and walked by. I usually do that. But this time I reconsidered, due to the nagging feeling of guilt that accompanied me as I continued down the block. How could I complain of the unfairness of life, I wondered, when here was a blatant example of a human being that does not have what she needs? True, it’s impossible to know her true story, but she would not be in the subway station collecting if life were fair and all her needs were met. On the other hand, as a native New Yorker my cynicism was deeply ingrained, and I did not want to give her money. So I decided to give her food. I went back into the station and approached her.
“Ma’am,” I said, “can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“Thank you, G-d bless you,” she said.
Then, knowing how varied tastes for coffee can be, I asked her, “and how would you like it?”
“Light and sweet,” she said, “and G-d bless you.”
I went to the coffee and donut stand right outside the station, bought a large cup of coffee and gave it to her, telling her that it was “light and sweet, just how you like it.” I thought I heard her voice break when she said “Thank you, G-d bless you” one more time.
AS I continued on my way I thought about the encounter and the meaning behind it, but I admit that the feeling of warmth and satisfaction that comes from helping another did not last very long before I went back to my brooding. But I learned that an opportunity for giving was available in the subway station right by my school, should I ever feel the need to do an extra kindness.
The next week, we all heard the tragic news about the couple killed in a car accident. Their beautiful picture was pasted on the front pages of all the daily papers, many of them known to publish negative opinions about the Orthodox Jewish community, but who seem to have made an exception for this tragic story. It was in those daily papers that I read about the kindness this young couple was known to do, which was evidently touching enough to move the publishers to print information that publicized some of the beauty and kindness of the Jewish community.
When I traveled to class Monday evening, I was thinking about the tragedy and the write-ups following it, and I felt the need to do an act of kindness in the memory of the couple in a small attempt to replace some of the kindness that died with them. That evening, the woman in the subway received another cup of coffee, light and sweet.
The following day brought news of another tragedy, with the news that the couple’s son that miraculously survived the trauma had died that morning. What my small act of kindness was going to do for the baby’s memory I’ll never know, but giving the woman a coffee and Danish that day gave me comfort and hope, that despite the terrible tragedy, there can be hope and kindness in this world as well.
Today, three weeks later, I was feeling much better. The situation that caused me so much pain that filled my mind on the day I met her seems to be on the mend. I felt positive, and wanted to do a kindness to reflect that good mood. And so once again, I decided to buy the woman in the subway station a hot drink. The last time I had given her a coffee I bought a Danish to go along with it, so I thought I’d ask her if she liked it or if she preferred a different pastry. It was the first time I had anything that can resemble a real conversation with her. I asked her how she was, and if she liked the pecan Danish. She said that the Danish was delicious, but more importantly, she told me about the room. “I was on the street for three weeks,” she said, “and now I finally have a room.”
Knowing that this would be the last time, I decided to buy her something for later as well, aside from the coffee and pastry. I was back three minutes later with a large cup of light and sweet coffee, a cinnamon Danish, and a cream cheese sesame bagel. As she had in the past, she said her thank you and G-d bless you and I told her that it was my pleasure and wished her a good day. Then I wished her good luck and I left the station, moved by the irony of the whole situation. That woman had been there when I needed her, and now she was moving on. When I first met her, she taught me that the perceived injustice in my life could in fact make the world a more fair place. When I was sad about a tragedy, she taught me that the world can still be a place of kindness. And when I felt positive and hopeful, she shared with me a message of hope of her own. And most importantly, she taught me a lesson about the value of kindness, in the form of a large cup of coffee, light and sweet.Emunah Friedman
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