The doors of the train swoosh open and a young man steps on and seats himself. When the doors close, he stands and walks to the center of the train.
Here we go, I think. Already I am shifting my gaze slowly to the floor.
“Excuse me,” he begins. “I just need a minute of your time. I’m begging you, I need help, I’ve tried everything.”
Instinctively, my eyes roll and I reach for my phone so I can look busy as he recites his sob story. An infection on his leg, here, he’ll show you. No money for medicine, been sleeping on the streets, he even has his discharge papers.
I know the drill. I used to live here. This was every day, commonplace. In fact, the deja vu I’m experiencing suggests I’ve heard this very story in the past. I don’t live in the city anymore, though. I no longer come face-to-face with the homeless, hungry, and maybe-either-homeless-or-hungry on a daily basis. Maybe it’s because my city-callous has chipped, or because I have no traveling companion with whom I can immerse myself in conversation and ignore the man in front of me, but guilt pricks my heart.
I stare at my phone and scroll through twitter, trying to ignore it.
The man ends his speech with, “I’m getting off at Fullerton, even if you can get me something to eat or drink it would mean so much.”
Great. That’s my stop, too.
He sits down across from me, wiping tears from his eyes. (I debated writing that part in quotation marks, but it sounded too cruel. Ironic given the quotation marks my heart immediately put around his actions.)
Subtly, warily, I feel around my purse for a granola bar or candy bar. Nothing. I check my wallet for a gift card, anything but cash. Of course, I have nothing easy to give.
I shove the guilt down again and scroll through Instagram until the train stops at Fullerton. The man is gone in the seconds it takes me to gather my things and step from the train to the platform, but the pang in my chest is still there. I know I would have never chased him down, walked with him to Dunkin Donuts, bought him a sandwich. I can’t pretend differently.
This isn’t one of those stories that has a miraculous ending. I didn’t find the man on the trip home and buy him lunch. He didn’t end up at the church I was going to. I didn’t somehow cosmically redeem myself by helping a different person later that weekend. We did pray a confessional prayer at the liturgical church I visited that morning, though, and the words have been ringing in my head ever since:
“Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
By what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves…
I have not loved my neighbor as myself.