So this is a two-part post. Okay, maybe a multi-part post. Firstly, the photos. These are images of the Union Square subway station in NYC. It began as “Subway Therapy” and grew into this. There are pads of sticky notes on a small table with some pens, and people write inspiring notes and stick them on the wall. And it keeps growing. It is really beautiful. Really moving. But I’m jumping ahead.
I’m on a short few-day getaway to the city to clear my head (yes, I go to large cities for an escape). I like the anonymity that a large city such as New York has to offer. Though I’ve never lived here, I have had a love affair with this city for much of my adult life. I first began coming here more than 30 years ago. I attended culinary school just up the river and came here on the weekends with friends. I attended seminary a few years ago and came here each month for two years. And now I’m back to once or twice a year. I just love to walk and see. My days usually entail book stores, coffee shops, and churches during the day and cafes and bars in the evening. But I’m getting off topic.
It may sound odd to you but I find cities—especially very large cities—spiritual. For the simple reason that there are so many souls crammed into one place going about our business all at once. So much humanity. I am also struck by the juxtaposition—or more appropriately, the stark contrast—of wealth and poverty. I often find myself offering spare change to those asking for it that live on the streets. And on this trip I found this especially true…there was the veteran in a wheelchair with no legs asking for money, there was also a woman with a large face tumor that covered half her eye asking for money, there was also the mother with a young child asking for money. There were others. And I apologize for the graphic descriptions, but they are real people. I’m also not trying to glorify myself by mentioning that I offered these people money. Actually, sometimes I think I’m a bit nuts as I worry about my own finances, but I can’t help it. They really pull at my heart strings. These are are souls from the same creator as you and I. But I suppose this too is a bit off topic. Let me steer back to what happened last evening.
I am staying at my usual place, a Lutheran hotel just off Union Square, and I went to dinner at my usual Thai restaurant. I had finished my meal and still had half a beer left so I was sipping it and watching the crush of humanity as it passed the window. I was thinking about how many times I have been here, and how the city, but mostly I, have changed. Emotionally and spiritually, yes of course, but also physically. I love to walk, I always have, but these days my feet and knees hurt pretty bad after a day of walking. By the end of the day I limp…a lifetime of working on my feet. When I was younger I could walk from Central Park clear down to the Village without even thinking about it. These days I still walk a lot but it is usually planned from subway stop to subway stop to cut out much of the distance. This worried me some…the pain I have now, what will it be like in 10 years, or 20 (if I make it that long). Anyhow, this is what happened next.
The waitress came over and cleared my plate so I asked her for my bill. She looked at me sort of awkwardly, then looked over her shoulder, then back at me. Then she says, Do you know that woman over there? No, why, I ask? Well, says the waitress, She already paid your bill. What? Are you sure? Yes, she replied. It was sort of surreal. I go over to the table to ask her why and also to thank her. She was an average looking person whom I probably would not have noticed in a crowd…African-American, over weight, and middle aged. She did not strike me as someone of great wealth or with a disposable income. Anyhow, I asked her why she paid my bill. Her response almost floored me. You look like someone who works hard and gives a lot to people so I wanted to give you something back.
Bam. My head was spinning.
Are you sure? I stuttered, I can pay for my own meal. No, honey, she responded, I want to do this. I do this now and again. Thank you so much was all I could stammer. And I walked out into the unusually warm New York evening and melded into the river of people that only a moment ago was watching pass in front of me. And at that moment the veil was lifted ever so slightly and briefly and I caught a glimpse of what life supposed to be like. We truly were all connected. Pay it forward and it returns.
And this is what happened to me yesterday evening.