Nice to see you again.
A few nights ago, I arrived at my apartment at the same time as the mailwoman. She wasn’t our usual mailwoman, so I tested the waters by opening the door to friendly conversation.
“Perfect timing!” (Not the wittiest opening, grant you, but it was something.)
“Aren’t you an angel,” she replied, following me into the tiny vestibule. “What’s your apartment number?”
She rifled through the mail and handed me the sad lot for the day: a credit card offer
and a coupon for Fresh Direct.
“Just what another skinny person needs,” she shook her head. “Being told what to eat!” She laughed. “Look at you, angel. You don’t need this! They should only send these to bigger people!”
She was far from waif-like herself, and she enjoyed my surprised, “Ha!”
“Are you almost done tonight?” I said, pulling out my keys.
“I have a big glass of wine waiting for me at home!” she boomed.
“Perfect! When do you get to drink it?”
“I live in Jersey, so it will be awhile.” She chuckled. “It’s on ice.”
As I walked up the three flights to my apartment, I made a point of glancing up and nodding a silent thank you for the exchange. We all need moments that take us out of ourselves, and, in about a minute, that mailwoman and I reached out and offered each other some joy.
It doesn’t take much.
If you walk by the corner of West 50th and Broadway on a weekday morning, you’ll probably see a man standing behind a table with a small metal box on it. He’ll probably be wearing a light-blue long pinny of sorts over jeans and a hoodie, sneakers, and a winter hat.
He’ll most definitely be waving, pointing, and calling out auctioneer-style to nearly every person who passes him by – New Yorkers hustling their way to work and tourists starting the day bright and early with a leisurely stroll towards Times Square – with a beaming smile on his face:
“GOOD morning, GOOD morning! Hello young lady, I like your hat! Hi there, sir, with the great green jacket! How’re you doin’ today? GOOD morning, miss! Have a great day.”
He works the crowd, spouting life into the cold, gray morning air. Every so often, he slips in a line about collecting money for the homeless before continuing with his happy greetings and compliments.
Some mornings, I look forward to passing him and greeting him in return. Some
mornings, I’m on the phone, and he sneaks up on me, but I try to at least catch his eye. Some mornings, I deem him the recipient of my “street ministry” and give him a dollar before continuing on my way. And some mornings, I purposely cross the street to avoid him because I feel guilty about not having any cash to give.
He’s a creator of community in an area rather void of it, so ingrained in that street corner that you don’t appreciate his magic until he’s not there. It's like Groundhog Day: the same scene, at the same time, in an endless loop. Always exactly the same. He’s larger than life, almost other-worldly. Not the type of man who stays home to nurse a cold. Every once in awhile, he's not on the corner, and the lack never ceases to amaze me. You see, I almost forget that he’s real.
I don’t even know his name. I see him at least three times a week, but I’ve never stopped to talk to him. I want to ask him questions about his mission, about his life. How long has he been there? What motivates him to stand on that corner every single morning with unwavering enthusiasm and zest for life? Yet I can’t quite bring myself to do it.
I fear it would shatter the illusion, knowing his name is Earl, or whatever it is. Maybe I would learn his sad story, or maybe I would learn that he’s just another grifter. Then again, would I really mind? He stands on that corner trying to brighten people’s mornings – people who are usually too preoccupied to even look at him, who don’t realize that he was complimenting them until they’re halfway down the next block. Is he even real? Or is he like the bell in The Polar Express that only rings for those who believe?
Whoever or whatever he is, I’ll do my best to stop avoiding him. I’ll do my best to engage, whether or not I have any cash on me. And one day, just maybe, I’ll ask his name and listen his story. Because he reminds me on a daily basis that it’s important to get out of yourself – and that reaching out and offering some joy doesn’t take much.
In fact, it’s one of the easiest things in the world.