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The Piano Man of Washington Square Park

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This is Colin Huggins, AKA the Piano Man of Washington Square Park. A classically trained pianist, and originally from Georgia, he has been busking in NYC parks with full-sized pianos for more than a decade. He began in Father Demo Square in the West Village, then moved on to Union Square but was asked to stop by local residents because of the crowds he drew. At one point he was fined $6000 (source: Wikipedia). These days one can find him in Washington Square Park nearly every weekend; he’s there every time I visit the city, even in the cold moths. I’ve posted on him in the past because one of the things he does–or allows–is for people to crawl under his piano and lay there on mats (which he provides) to get a full concert sound. Anyhow, this photo was shot last night while he was playing his last song of the evening. Another thing that I think is pretty cool is the phrase which he has on both sides of his piano and is visible in this photo. It’s the same phrase that Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar…This Machine Kills Fascists.

This is Joseph…

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This is Joseph, we met on a subway train yesterday evening. I heard him before seeing him though. I was standing at the far end of a crowded car when he got on at the other end announcing himself, “Hello good people of New York, my name is Joseph.” I’ve sort of given up on giving money to street people for a few reasons, one is that I myself have very little of it these days but also I’ve become overwhelmed, especially in a city like NY. But Joseph was different, he wasn’t asking for a lot, just pennies or whatever change we could spare. He held a small plastic baggie with some coins in it as he swayed through the car telling his story. He hears voices, he bellowed, this is why it is difficult for him to keep a job. At first he thought they were real—that everyone could hear them—but then people told him they were not.  Imagine, he suggested to us, the sound of all these voices you hear in this car right now were in your head but you were in a room alone, and they were talking to you directly. As he swayed through the moving car a few people put money in his plastic baggie, but no one seemed to look at him. I thought my stop would arrive before he would get to me but it didn’t. When he approached I reached into my pocket and found a quarter and a penny, 26 cents, and felt a little foolish as I offered it to him and apologized, saying that was all that I had. “No worries,” he relied, “74 more cents and I’ll have a dollar.” I told him my name was Joseph as well, and asked if I could take his photo, that I like to document people I meet. He got a big grin on his face and struck a pose. After the shutter clicked he told me to put his face on CNN. We fist bumped and as he parted I said, “Good luck, Joseph.” And as he exited the car he turned and replied, “I’ll be alright, every day is a gift from God. If you believe that, which I do, how bad can things be.” With that he exited into a sea of humanity. Thank you Joseph, I needed to hear that. I often forget and you reminded me. This photo cost me 26 cents, but it is worth so much more. Everyone has a story, today I heard a small part of Joseph’s and my life is better because of it.

M. Steffan’s Sons, Inc

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This is Linda Steffan, fifth generation owner of M. Steffan’s Sons, she inherited the shop from her father in 1993. In the above photo she is holding one of the two leather camera straps she just made for me. Her business card states, in addition to her name, number, etc: Wholesalers and Retailers of Leather and Findings; Shoe Shiner and Leather Craft Supplies.

It’s interesting, I have lived in the neighborhood of this store for many years and have probably walked or biked past it literally thousands of times and often wondered about it, and also questioned whether it was still open. It is very much so.

Unhappy with a strap I had for my camera and wanting one specific, I thought I would stop by so I Googled the place for its hours and came across this recent article about her in the Buffalo News. When I went there a couple weeks ago on my lunch break it was like stepping back in time. I showed her my current strap and what I would like and questioned if she could make one for me, “Sure, why not,” is what she said.

While chatting with her and shooing away her tiny dog that kept nipping at my ankles I told her I read that she had ghosts in the basement which she kept at bay with salt on the stairs. “That’s right,” she said a matter-of-factly, “and there’s also a crucifix as well.” When I requested to see them she declined.

Over the course of three visits in the past couple weeks I was surprised how many customers came in. There was someone with a large leather chair having it repaired, someone purchasing strips of leather, and today a guy was picking up his shoes which he has shined there. In retrospect, I remember chatting with a late neighbor, who was repairing his own leather chair, who told be he purchased the leather their as it was the only place he could find in the city.

It really is an interesting experience doing business with Linda. Not only are you doing business with the owner—which is becoming a rarity these days—but she is polite and cheerful and the place is packed floor-to-ceiling with all sorts of tools and merchandise. What you won’t find are any loud or glaring screens, in fact I didn’t see any electronics at all. My receipt is hand written.

Yesterday when I got the call that my straps were ready I told her I would stop by the next day on my lunch hour, which was Wednesday. She mentioned that she was only open until 12:00 or 1:00pm on Wednesdays so I made sure to be on time. When I arrived, we fitted one of my cameras with a strap to make sure it fit correctly—it did—and then she punched a couple more holes in the leather to make it a bit more adjustable.

Thanking her for her work, before leaving I asked why she closed early on Wednesdays. She smiled replied simply, “Because I can.” Thank you Linda for such a pleasurable experience, I felt like an actual person and not just another customer while doing business with you. 

Urban Simplicity.

Journal Entry, 6 February 2019

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Sometimes my heart becomes hardened in such a subtle way that I don’t realize, setting up a sort of invisible shield. Shutting the world out and me in. Then a chance encounter cracks its fragile outer shell, letting in light and love out. And in an instant I can see—am reminded—that is all there is. The most important thing. To love one another, no matter what. It’s so simple and equally difficult. But remembering is the most difficult part of all.

This is Ben

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This is Ben. I met him this afternoon on my way back to my hotel for a siesta. I was tired as I had been walking all day, as is my way when in an incredibly vibrant city such as NYC. It doesn’t help that in haste this morning I hopped on an express train that took me way out of the way from where I wanted to go. I only mention this to note that I had walked far and hard and was so looking forward to taking a break. Anyhow, as I crossed Cooper Square I saw Ben and a smile came across my face. Without even realizing the words were coming out of my mouth I found myself saying, “Excuse me, can I take your photo?” Then I was even more surprised when he turned and said yes. 

Ben grew up in London but has been living in NYC for some time, he’s also dressed like this for as long as he can remember. We chatted about a few of our favorite British punk bands and both agreed that the Clash is one of the best bands that has ever existed. After  taking his photo he asked if I would take one with his phone. After looking at it he thought it was too dark, so we moved to a sunnier spot, you can see the difference in the two photos. I have always been drawn to people that live outside society’s norm (whatever that is), and it’s interesting that after talking with Ben for a few minutes I felt invigorated (but still took a brief nap at my room). There are people of all walks of life in this world, and that is such a good thing. Life would be so boring otherwise.

This is Denarius.

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Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.”
~1 Thessanolians 5:17-18

If you’ve been to this blog prior then you know that on occasion I profile someone who is living on the street. I used to do this more often but haven’t in recent months simply because I myself have been broke and I usually give them some money—even if it is just a couple bucks—after speaking with them.

This said, I’m in NYC for the weekend and on my way back to my room last night met Denarius. I wasn’t going to stop but her sign caught my attention. It quoted a portion of one of my favorite Bible passages (which is above). So as I was walking I glanced at her sign then at her and as she looked up from a book she was reading our eyes met. Her eyes told me that she was a kind person so I stopped. After introducing myself I commented on her sign and she too agreed it was one of her favorites as well.

Denarius has only been in the city a short while, she took the Greyhound bus here from the west coast to escape a bad situation. That’s all that I know. After chatting for a few minutes I asked if I could take her photo, to which she agreed. She was also patient with me as I fumbled with the camera as I had forgotten I had it set for timed long exposure settings for photos I had just previously taken. We laugh a bit, then I snapped her photo. After chatting a bit more I parted.

The room I stay in in NY is a meager one…a room with a bed, table, and TV that rarely works, and a shared toilet and shower down the hall, but still it is grand compared to Delnarius’ accommodations. And on the way back to my room I kept thinking of the quote she chose for her sign, and the fact that she herself seemed as cheerful and thankful as it suggested. If I were o find myself in her situation I don’t know if I could maintain such positivity. My life is better because of meeting her, I pray she is well.

To read more in this series, Click Here.

Things that can be carried on a bike (#734), with brief commentary.

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Things on the bike…$62 in groceries, a bag with a change of clothes, a camera and an extra lens.

So this didn’t happen today, it happened last week and hadn’t happened in a while, but for whatever reason I was thinking about it as I loaded my bike with groceries today, and then was thinking about it still as I pedaled to the JCC to sit in the shvitz for a while. It’s something that will inevitably happen to a cyclist. It happens less that it once did, but still it happens. I’m talking about being yelled at out a car window to get off the road. There are, of course, endless variations of the statement with equally endless possibilities to insert various expletives. Sometimes I’ll yell back, stating that I have the same rights as them, but this time was different. This time they didn’t swear, but they ended the sentence with “snowflake,” and yes I am aware of its derogatory implication. “Get off the road, snowflake,” is what he said and it sort of startled me. This is what they assumed of me simply because I was on a bike.

I was so taken aback that I didn’t yell anything in return. But if I did I should have yelled something like, “Well if being a tree-hugging, climate-change-believing, bicycle-riding, Jesus-following, beatnik, hippie, women-loving/supporting, survivor-believing, black/blue/all lives matter-supporting, immigrant-loving, LGTBQ supporting, pro-choice, democratic-socialist makes me a snow flake, then okay. But I still have as much right on this road as you.

While this statement may sound a bit snarky on my part, and I suppose it is, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Golden Rule lately. Especially as I scroll through social media where people can speak their mind or post nonsensical memes without being face-to-face to those they target (which, imho is a real detriment to society), it’s sort of like an electronic version of yelling out a car window, I suppose.

Mostly we think of the Golden Rule as spoken by the Jew from Nazareth who came to be known as the Christ, but it is mentioned by prophets before and after him in the bible, and in the sacred texts of most religions, for that matter. It’s the most simple concept but also the most difficult. What I am referring to, of course, is loving our neighbors as ourselves. This, I suppose, even means loving the guy who yelled at me, and also people who I don’t agree with. This is likely no more easy a concept now that it was two millennia ago. What came to me while sitting and sweating in the steam room is that while yes, I do have to love my neighbor (meaning everyone within the realm of my little life, both real and virtual), that I do need to treat them with respect and dignity as another fellow person on this third rock from the sun. But at the same time I don’t think I need to, or even think I have the ability, to like everyone. We can disagree but still treat each other with respect. We need to if we want our country to survive. I’ll get off my little soapbox now.


Urban Simplicity.

Path of Trinity…a book review

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Path of Trinity
Journey into Christian Mysticism
By Travis Wade Zinn

But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom that has been hidden, which God foreordained before the ages for our glory.
– 1 Corinthians 2:7

Before I begin this brief review I ave to offer full disclosure. While not having met the author in real life we are Facebook friends online; mystical kindred spirits are drawn to another. I had seen Travis’ posting for the book and it intrigued me so I requested a copy for review, and I wasn’t sorry.

Path of Trinity, Journey into Christian Mysticism is an interesting and important book. There is a lot of information packed into this slim volume, but at the same time it is not for everyone. What I mean by this is mysticism—as it’s title suggests—is a mystery, and for some this is uncharted and even scary territory. The idea that there is more than we can see and touch with our physical senses may be difficult for some to grasp. But I’m jumping ahead.

What makes this book truly interesting is that it not only discusses Christian mysticism, but it is autobiographical as well. The author openly reveals his personal journey, and some of it was very difficult. He frankly discusses his previous addictions, his bout with homelessness, and also his physical breakdown which almost killed him. But through it all he was connected to Spirit.

What originally drew me to this book, and the sections I found most interesting, are where Mr. Zinn discusses early church history and Christianity’s mystical roots, “Few people are aware of the pervasive influence that Jewish mysticism had on early Christianity. Christian mysticism did not have its primary origins in Greek thought but instead came directly from it’s Jewish roots” (pg. 17). To me this statement is powerful because in today’s Christian culture it is easy to forget that not only was Jesus Jewish—was was born a Jew, lived his life as a Jew, and died on the cross as a Jew—but also he himself was a mystic.

A theme throughout the book, as is common in not only Christian mysticism but also any mystical tradition, is the importance of prayer and meditation. While some may have difficulty and think that meditation is “un-Christian,” it is really part of our heritage not only through Kabbalism but also early Christianity, and the author delves into this and explains it well. He also does a good job comparing the similarities and differences with esoteric teachings of Buddhism and Christianity.

Path of Trinity is really a guide for people to be in relationship with the Spirit which dwells in all of us, and the author writes in a personal way as if he is speaking directly to you disclosing not only information he has learned but also his own personal experiences. For example, “In the physical realm, we are limited by preconditioned options, but if we operate spiritually miracles can happen that translate even to the physical realm. Christ was not speaking merely metaphorically when he said that faith could move mountains. The reality we imagine as fixed is more fluid, more interconnected than we realize” (pg. 69). He then goes on to tell how he healed himself with prayer while on missionary in the Amazon.

As aforementioned, the book is intertwined with historical and factual information but also the author’s experiences, but it also contains practical information as well. It concludes with the sentence: “Tear out the following pages and get to work” (pg. 115). The last pages contain graphically animated directions on how to meditate.

Mr. Zinn holds an honors degree in religion and specializes in Christian mysticism, he has also resided at Zen monasteries. Though the information in this book deep, it is written in a very readable way. This book is an example of the shift Christianity needs to make if we want it to survive. A shift back, in many ways; a shift to our mystical roots. But even more importantly, a shift inward. Path of Trinity, Journey into Christian Mysticism, is a book that can renew one’s faith in the Spirit that has been there all along.

The book is available in both print and electronic versions, here’s an Amazon link if you’d like to order it. 

Seeds of Love and Compassion…mille mercis

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Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in their soul.” ~Thomas Merton

As I was walking home yesterday I saw a couple leaves blowing in the light breeze, then one came to a halt in front of me. My first thought was that it is too early for fall foliage. Then I was affected not only by its simple beauty but also the contrast in its metaphoric imagery…the beautiful and frail leaf with a backdrop of stark concrete. For some reason it reminded me of the fragility of life.

I’ve been thinking about writing a lengthy response to the outpouring of people who donated to my GoFundMe campaign which started a couple days ago but have decided against it. Instead I’ll get straight to the point. I am overwhelmed and grateful beyond words. I cannot say thank you enough.

People who analyze crowd-shared fundraisers (yes, there are sites) suggest that you re-post frequently and regularly to keep activity and traffic. I can’t and won’t do that. It was very difficult for me to start the campaign to begin with. While I will not be re-posting it I will keep it active, likely through the month of August as I am 1/3 of the way to the goal. Should anyone like to contribute, it can be found here. At the very least I do hope people continue to share the link for others to see and read my story.

Fr. Merton suggested that every activity plants seeds on our souls. This has planted seeds of compassion and love on mine and yours. My heart is cracked wide open. Thank you so incredibly much for not only supporting my campaign thus far, but more importantly being part of my life.

Peace,
Joe

Cocovan and Her Love Letter to the World

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“Letter writing can be seen as a gift because someone has taken his/her time to write and think and express love.”
― Soraya Diase Coffelt


So this is Cocovan, or simply Coco, as she introduced herself. I first saw her when I was walking through Washington Square Park the other day and she was kneeling an arranging her scroll-like letter on the ground, and then sat at the heart-shaped chair and desk at the head of it. I was mesmerized in a way and had to see what was up. “It’s a love letter to the world from the world,” she said with a smile when I questioned her. She is originally from Paris and has taken the letter across Europe thus far and plans on taking it to all seven continents, collecting signatures and letters of love and drawings along the way. Beautiful, I thought to myself before signing it. It is interesting to think that my short letter to the world is on this scroll along with thousands others and will travel the globe. Safe travels Cocovan, and thank you for spreading love. To read more about the project and the artist, visit Cocovan’s website here.  

Question to self (how far would you go)

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how far would you go
if you lacked resources
for basic necessities
what
would you do
to survive
how far would you go
to help
offer aid
if you
had too much
would your heart
be hardened
or
cracked wide open

evening

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the day fades
night slithers in
another day in life
tomorrow is new
another chance
to be alive
to live
moment by moment
but for now
it is evening

The Day of the Resurrection (Journal Entry: 1 April 2018)

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The Day’s First Light

“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”  ~ Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

This morning while doing some reading I stumbled upon the above quote and it could not have been more appropriate, and this, I suppose, can be interpreted in a number of ways. While I woke in a dark place today I also find inspiration in the darkness, but I’m jumping ahead.

Today is Easter morning, the celebration of the resurrection, a celebration of all that is light and hope. But I woke to internal darkness. It wasn’t sudden, it’s been stalking me for a while. I could feel it, sense it, see it lurking behind corners just behind me. Then like a thief in the night it engulfed me. This is not to say that I am in despair, as I have been before, just like so many others. I can still see the light, and know that the light is achievable, it’s just that it is in the distance, slightly out of reach.

The darkness, which can take many forms, has been a mild feeling of uncertainty for a while…weeks or months, I can’t recall. But now it is time to grab hold of certainty. As a natural observer and creatively inclined, it’s easy for me to see things then capture them in a photo, or words, or a drawing, but at the same time it is difficulty to observe myself. Not just my physical actions but internally as well, and that’s where things begin, on the inside.

There are some changes that need to take place in my life, which I am aware of, and that can only happen from the inside out through introspection first, then action. Easter is the day of resurrection, a day of hope and rebirth, thus it is also a good day to begin again, and likely tomorrow begin again, and then again. The light is within reach, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Now it’s up to me to reach for it.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” ~ Romans 12:2

This is Rich.

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Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

~Romans 12:13 


This is Rich. Even before he asked me the question I knew that he would. I could tell the way he surveyed the parking lot as I walked up to the coffee shop. And as suspected, when I got close enough he solicited me for change. But I’m jumping ahead.

I walked to the coffee shop today instead of riding my bike…a night of sloppy, heavy snow has made the streets also sloppy. So I walked. This is the time of year when the incessant grey starts to bring me down. And as I walked I was thinking about a class in which I am currently enrolled, Western Civilization and Human Progress. This is why I was heading to the coffee shop, to do some work. In the class right now we are discussing whether we as humans have actually made any progress by comparing some events to those of the Middle Ages, and also reading texts such as the Bible and the Confessions of St. Augustine. This is what was going through my head as I approached the parking lot.


Anyhow, as I approached Rich, even before he asked me, I noticed the cross dangling prominently from his neck. Someone from St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy gave it to him, he told me, sometimes he sleeps there. It was a nice cross. As we talked I found out that Rich hasn’t worked “in a while” because of a bad back, a broken knee, and colon cancer. 

He wanted money for a coffee. I actually thought about inviting him in and purchasing his coffee but didn’t for a couple reasons. The first being that I had my laptop and books with me and needed to get work done, and the second is that Rich told me he wanted the money for coffee across the street because he’s not allowed in this shop. So I gave him one of the two dollars in my wallet then asked if I could take his photo. Straightening up the best he could, he said sure and had a twinkle in his eye. After talking some more he asked me for another dollar, so I gave him the remaining one in my wallet (I knew that I had plenty of credit on my phone app for the coffee shop).


So did Rich use the money for coffee? I don’t know, I hope so, but maybe not. Maybe he used it for alcohol (though he was sober when I talked to him), and I’ll likely be spending money on alcohol for myself this evening. My point is this…I saw this guy who needed a couple bucks and I had a couple bucks. Giving them away probably helped him more than it hurt me. No one aspires to grow up and be homeless. I can’t imagine how degrading it must feel to ask strangers for money. And I’ll be honest, talking with Rich today was a really nice conversation, we were just two humans talking on a grey snowy day in the parking lot of a coffee shop. I hope he stays warm and safe.


Urban Simplicity

The Future is Unwritten

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John Graham Mellor (Joe Strummer)

21 August 1952 – 22 December 2002 

Fifteen years ago today Joe Strummer made his sudden and untimely transition. His words and music have had, and still, have, a huge impact on my life. I took the below photo in the spring of 2012 (I think). It was a mural on the side of a bar, Niagara, at the corner of East 7th and Avenue A in NYC’s East Village. In 2003 graffiti artists Zephyr and Dr. Revolt paid homage to Joe a few months after his death. Someone told me that they came back every year to touch it up. But then, a few years ago, the wall had to be repaired so it was removed, much to the dismay of pretty much everyone. Since then there is a new version of it up, though I still prefer the original which is pictured. Anyhow, at the bottom of this post is a truly moving video of the artists painting the mural while Joe Strummer sings his rendition of Redemption song as a backdrop. What is interesting is that at one point, towards the beginning, the filmmaker puts a clip of Joe Strummer in the crowd as if he was watching it being painted. Anyhow, if you have a few minutes I hope you’ll watch it. The music alone is worth the watch, but seeing the faces of the people watching is really moving. Turn it up.

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-GL_gXSOhuwA/UWNrDzx_LlI/AAAAAAAANCA/wtpZApCvGI4/s1600/Joe+Strummer+(small).jpg

“And so now I’d like to say – people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. People are running about following their little tracks – I am one of them. But we’ve all got to stop just following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything – this is something that I’m beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other. That’s because they’ve been dehumanised. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel.”

.

“Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realised that you either became a power or you were crushed”

.

“The future is unwritten.”

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“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. There is nothing more common then unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world if full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are Omnipotent.”

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“Everybody has a story to tell.”

More in the Five Quotes series.

But Who Is My Neighbor?

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When you’re kind to people, and you pay attention, you make a field of comfort around them, and you get it back—the Golden Rule meets the Law of Karma meets Murphy’s Law.
― Anne Lamott


At the outset of this paper which is focusing on the ethics of how we, as humans, treat and interact with each other, I’ll begin with a story which I feel is an excellent example of human kindness. I also have to qualify this paper in that while this is for an ethics class in philosophy, I am working towards a dual degree in philosophy and religious studies, thus there is overt religious language ahead.

January 2014 I was in Manhattan taking seminary classes. As is the norm, January in New York was cold. I had just had lunch with a few classmates and was out for a brisk walk then a coffee before returning to class. As I approached the Starbucks on the corner of 35th and 6th I saw a man that was often just outside the front door. He sat on the sidewalk on a piece of cardboard staring straight ahead with a small plastic bucket in front of him and another piece of cardboard written as a sign asking for money. As I approached the door I reached into my pocket and put whatever change I had into the bucket. He looked up at me and said thank you. Our eyes met and for a brief moment time had stopped. We were just two people—humans on planet earth—both of us God’s children trying to make it through this life. “I hope you have a good day,” I told him, he replied “Thank you; God bless you.”

After getting my coffee I looked around and saw that the only available spot was the counter, a shelf really, which is in the window facing 6th Avenue. And as I stood there sipping my two dollar cup of coffee, which cost more than what I put in the man’s bucket, it felt odd; I felt a little guilty. With his back to me, this man was sitting on the sidewalk directly in front of me and the only thing separating us was a thin pane of glass. Yet I was on the inside and he was out in the cold. The biblical passage where Jesus was instructing his disciples how to treat strangers (and how they unknowingly treated him) came to mind, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36, NIV).

There was a food cart on the corner of the street, and as I looked out the window sipping my coffee I could see another man talking with the vendor and also looking over at the man on the sidewalk. A minute later he walked over to the guy sitting on sidewalk, and in his hands were hot dogs and sodas, but what happened next brought tears to my eyes. At first I thought he was simply buying food for the guy, but what he did then really amazed me. He sort of knelt down and said something to the man; I of course couldn’t hear him as I was safely ensconced on the “inside.” Then, after a moment, he sat down next to the guy and they both ate their hot dogs together, right there on the cold sidewalk. He did more than simply feed him, he sat with him, saw him as an equal, and gave him dignity.

There are more than 1.6 million people living on Manhattan Island but on that day I saw these two lives converge, and it was beautiful. In a way they were communing together as two souls; the bread they broke were the hot dogs, the wine they drank was soda, and the altar was the cold New York Street.

I wanted to tell this story because I feel what I really saw that day was love in action, and that’s what life is really about isn’t it? Connecting with one another and taking care of each other. The writer and philosopher, Peter Singer, argues that this is not something that is a casual occurrence, but that it is our duty as fellow humans, “Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those who have the great good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families, and still have money or time left to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living an ethical life involves doing the most good we can” (Singer, 2016).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but nowhere in any sacred or philosophical text from any tradition does it say “every person for themselves.” I’ve never heard of a great sage, philosopher, or mystic say to “take what you can because you deserve it,” nor have I heard, “the person who dies with the most stuff wins.” It’s just the opposite. What I’m talking about, of course, is the Golden Rule. This is something that I truly believe is written on each one of our hearts, and deep down each one of us knows it. There are versions of this in every faith tradition, but they all say the same thing. Here are a few examples:

Judaism: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (The Bible, New International Version, 2011).

Hinduism: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

Taoism: The sage does not dwell on his own problems. He is aware of the needs of others. (Tao Te Ching, 2017)

Islam: None of you has faith until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

My favorite version of this comes from the Christian text in the tenth chapter of Luke, which is the introduction to the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer quizzes Jesus; he inquires, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, being clever as he was, answered the lawyer’s question with a question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer being an educated man smartly rattles off the answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” To which Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28, NIV). Now just for a minute, let the tail end of this statement sink in…“do this and you will live.”

The lawyer must have thought for a moment, and realized that it would be easy for him to love God with everything he’s got so long as he doesn’t have to love all of his neighbors. So just to be perfectly clear, he asks Jesus his final question, “and who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29, NIV) to which Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, which of course is the story of a stranger helping a stranger, and also another excellent example of human kindness, but even more importantly an example of how we should live.

We as a species are hardwired to be caring and want to make a connection with one another. Scientists using advanced imaging technology to study brain function have found that the human brain is wired to reward activities such as caring for each other, cooperation, and service.  Merely thinking about another person experiencing harm triggers the same reaction in our brain as when a mother sees distress in her baby’s face. But the act of helping another person triggers the brain’s pleasure center (Greater Good, 2017).

In an age where sensationalism sells and good news doesn’t always make the news, the media likes to portray the world as a dangerous self-serving place, but this is not necessarily the case. “If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media. There are plenty of violent people, but for any randomly selected person today the chances of meeting a violent death at the hands of his fellow humans is lower now than it has ever been in history (Singer, 2016). Good still abounds all around us, sometimes we just have to look for it.

That same cold winter in New York much of the country had a cold snap, even in unlikely places such as Georgia, and that’s where Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw was at the time. He is an accomplished brain surgeon and was at Brookwood Medical Center and had to travel to Trinity Medical Center, six miles away, to perform an emergency operation…but then the snow hit and Georgia was declared a state of emergency.

The doctor knew that getting to the other hospital by car was not an option. He also knew that his patient had taken a turn for the worse and if he didn’t get to them soon and perform the operation they would die. Dr. Hrynkiw is not a spry 20 or 30 something, he’s not even 40 or 50; he’s in his 60’s. But knowing the facts at hand he didn’t hesitate. He did, what I believe is within each one of us; he set out to help. He walked the six miles with an overcoat covering his surgical scrubs, and booties still on his feet, and made it in time to perform the surgery and save the patient. Later, when asked to be interviewed he commented “he didn’t know what the big deal was, he only did what anyone would have” (NPR.org, 2017).

So I ask again, who are our neighbors? Is it the person living in the next apartment, just beyond a thin wall? Sure, of course. But who else. How about the person you meet on the street? Or a co-worker. Dr. Hrynkiw certainly knew, and deep down so do we. I truly believe this.

I recently finished reading an inspirational travel book by the journalist Mike McIntyre, The Kindness of Strangers, Penniless Across America. The gist of the book is the that author walked and hitchhiked from his comfortable home in San Francisco to the east coast. He did not bring a cent with him and would not accept money, nor would he ask for food or lodging. As the title suggests he was literally relying on the kindness of strangers. During his journey he found that most people just wanted to help one another, “Once again I am amazed at how often it’s the ones with little to eat who are quick to share their food” (McIntyre, 2014).

A couple years ago I was working as chef at a private city club, “the second oldest club of it’s kind in the country,” its members like to proclaim. I would serve the “upper crust” of society while much of the kitchen staff was paid below living wages. Saw Tin was one such person, he was a dishwasher at the time, but prior to fleeing his native Burma he was an engineer. Though with little English skills this was the work he could find in America. I do not speak Burmese so we spent a lot of time pantomiming. He is about my age and was working to save enough money to bring his wife and adult daughter here.

On one Monday morning he came to me with a wallet he had found on his way to work; it was on the sidewalk, he motioned. When I opened it, it contained more than $100 in cash and 10 credit cards. We turned the wallet over to the police who then contacted the owner. When she came to retrieve it she commented that everything was intact; nothing was missing. Saw Tin had full opportunity to take the cash and credit cards without anyone finding out, but he didn’t. The women asked to meet him so she could thank him. When they met, Saw Tin greeted her with clasped hands, a brief bow, and a soft namaste. Namaste is a Sanskrit phrase which loosely translates as, “my soul recognizes your soul” (Geno, 2017).

But who is my neighbor? Saw Tin knew. Acts of kindness, big or small, can really make a huge impact on a person’s life.

The basis of what the philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant, refer to as moral philosophy is moral action, and if I’m reading this correctly, this is how a person responds to the world. Kant also argued that the basis for morality is freedom (Palmquist, 2008). If this is true then we have the freedom to choose good action from bad. What I find interesting, and even a bit contradicting, in Kant’s theory is that while he was not necessarily a proponent of compassion (Greater Good, 2017), he also suggested that we listen to the small voice within each of us (Palmquist, 2008). To the philosopher this small voice may be the voice of reason, but to me I truly believe this to be the voice of compassion.

The Epistle of James, which is one of the oldest books of the New Testament and is said to have been penned by James, the brother of Jesus, is really a small book of Christian ethics. Some say it is a blueprint for the way a Christian should live, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save you? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17, NIV).

Richard Taylor in his book, Restoring Pride, suggests this inner knowing and selfless service are a sort rule of manners, and even though he writes of pride, he also argues that this is not pride but refers to it as considerateness, “Thus, the rule of considerateness has no connection with pride, but is a practical rule of manners. It guides you unerringly in your relationships to all other persons, whether they be friends, kin, or total strangers” (Talyor, 1996).

By now you’ve likely gathered that I like to use stories, everyday events, as ways to illustrate my point. Well I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on something that just happened. I was about halfway through writing this paper at a local coffee shop. My head was down and I was “in the zone” typing so I didn’t see the man approach until I heard his scraggly voice say “excuse me.” I looked up and there was a man in front of me who was not pleasant to look at. He was older, looked physically unclean, had a runny nose, and a small open wound on his face. He was asking for money. Here I am writing a paper about the Golden Rule, quoting Jesus and other sacred texts, and there is Christmas music playing in the background. Is this some sort of a test, I thought?

I often give the homeless spare change, and stop and talk with them, but for some reason I was put off by how I was approached; he had a sort of aggressive manner. My first inclination was to say no I can’t. But then I thought to myself (the small voice within), can’t or won’t. I felt my pocket and there was no change, so I reached for my wallet and handed him a dollar. Seeing the loose bills in my wallet he asked if he could have another, I handed him another and as I did an employee came by and shuffled him out. I realized then that his aggressive behavior was likely that he knew he only had a brief moment before he was kicked out, time was of the essence. On their way back in the employee stopped by my table to apologize…apologizing for another human being. Who is my neighbor, I thought to myself?

Philosophy, and even religion for that matter, in many ways seems to be about asking questions, and not necessarily having the answers. Plato, I think, sums this up articulately in his famous but simple statement in his Apology, where Sacrates proclaims “An unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, n.d.), because I believe with self-examination comes growth, and with growth one realizes that they are not they only person that counts.

There are so many questions which I do not have an answer, but there is one that I do: Who is my neighbor? The answer is everyone, but the difficult part is remembering this and treating each and every person the way that I would like to be treated. But this, I suppose, is what makes us human.

In conclusion, I’ll finish with an eloquent quote from the stoic philosopher, Epictetus, from his slim but inspirational volume, The Art of Living, which I feel summarizes the entire premise of the Golden Rule: “One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our contact is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well-educated, but to all our human brethren. View yourself as a citizen of a worldwide community and act accordingly” (Epictetus and Lebell, 2007).

Works Cited

Epictetus and Lebell, S. (2007). The art of living. New York: HarperOne.
Geno, R. (2017). The Meaning of “Namaste”. [online] Yoga Journal. Available at: https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-meaning-of-quot-namaste-quot [Accessed 25 Nov. 2017].

Greater Good. (2017). The Compassionate Instinct. [online] Available at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_instinct [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Bible Publishers.

McIntyre, M. (2014). The kindness of strangers. [Charleston, SC]: CreatSpace.

NPR.org. (2017). Brain Surgeon Walks 6 Miles Through Storm To Save Patient. [online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/01/31/269380564/brain-surgeon-walks-six-miles-through-storm-to-save-patient [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Palmquist, S. (2008, November 8). The Tree of philosophy. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/

Plato. The Apology. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from The Internet Classics, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). 1:12: Anas: The Prophet said, None of you will have faith till he wishes for his …. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-    texts.com/isl/bukhari/bh1/bh1_11.htm [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). Sacred-Texts: Hinduism. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/ [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). Introduction and Preface. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/maha/maha00.htm [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Singer, P. (2016). Most good you can do. New Haven and London: Yale Univ Press.

Tao Te Ching. Acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu. (2017). Tao Te Ching. [online] Available at: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Taylor, R. (1996). Restoring pride: the lost virtue of our age. New York: Prometheus Books. 

The Freedom Wall….is one of inspiration

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On my way home from work this afternoon I took the long way home to ride past this free-art project and see the progress. It is titled the Freedom Wall and is sponsored by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This, to me, in these uncertain times and with all the “wall building talk,” it is so inspiring to see a wall such as this with a positive purpose. Here:s an excerpt from their website:

“This space provides the ideal surface for a mural that will respond to the significance of the location as the entrance into the Historic Corridor and that celebrates our nation’s civil rights legacy. The Freedom Wall project (working title) will utilize the design of the wall, divided into sections, to depict portraits of 28 notable civil rights leaders in American history, past and present. The scale of the wall creates a unique opportunity to present a historical narrative that recognizes well-known national activists alongside equally important but less-widely-known local leaders.”

I was glad to see there were a few people working on the wall when I rode up to it, and they were all too eager to talk to me about it and tell me about some of what was going on. Directly below is one of the artists, Edreys Wajed, he’s working on a portrait of William Wells Brown who spent some time in Buffalo at one point. The photo below is a nice young women who is not one of the artists but described herself as a helper, she helps the artists fill things in, she told me. She also gave me a great deal of information about the project. And in the photo directly below that is a rap artist who was being filmed performing in front of Dr. King. In all, there are 28 portraits being painted by four artists and the wall stretches around the corner for two city blocks.

The project is slated to be completed in the next couple weeks and there will be an opening with a street party. This, to me, is really inspiring and worth pedaling a few blocks out of my way to pass it on my way to work.

To learn more about the project, the artists, and the list of people being portrayed, visit their web site here. For directions to the Freedom Wall, click here.

Urban Simplicity.

 

Two Guys Talking on a Street Corner

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[This is part of a series on Faces of the Homeless and street people, for more in this series click here.)

All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else.” ~Marcus Aurelius

At first glance one would not likely think that Gary would be asking for money on the street. Dressed in khakis and a turquoise colored Polo-style shirt embroidered with a little sailboat insignia, he would appear to be just an average middle-aged guy waiting for a bus. But there was something in the way that he scanned people as they passed that I new he was panhandling. I was on my way to a local tavern when I first noticed him as I crossed the street. He looked both shy and a little scared when he asked politely, “Excuse me sir, can you spare some change for a disabled veteran?” Knowing the only money I had on me was a twenty dollar bill, and I was on my way for a beer, I looked him in the eyes and politely but selfishly replied, “No, sorry buddy, I can’t.” As the words came out of my mouth I thought to myself, “can’t” or “won’t,” but still I walked over to the tavern which was just a storefront away.

After the bartender brought me a pint she set my change on the bar, and as I looked at it I couldn’t help but think of Gary who was standing just a storefront away. So I set my book next to my beer, grabbed a ten from the change, told the bartender I’d be right back and walked over to Gary. He looked a bit startled as I walked back towards him, and without offering any money I introduced myself and asked if it would be okay to ask him a few questions and possibly take his photo. Not surprisingly he was leery and wanted to know why. I gave him my card with my blog address and explained to him that I was doing a sort of research with people on the street, that I wanted to hear their stories. He agreed, so here is Gary’s story.

Gary is 49, he’ll be 50 next month. He’s not homeless, he has an apartment which is subsidized. I asked him why he is on the street asking people for money and he told me to help pay his bills. His apartment is subsidized but it’s not free, he told me, and he also added that he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s only been panhandling for a “short while,” he also told me. When I asked him what it was like when he first started asking people for money, he averted his eyes, looked down and said, “It was humiliating, it still is, but I have no other choice.”

Gary is a veteran who served our country but here he was on a street corner asking people for money. In the age of affluence in which we live, how can this be, I wondered? He didn’t look physically disabled, I knew it had to be something else, so I asked him. “I hear voices,” he told me, “that’s why I can’t hold a job.” It first started while he was in the Marine Corps, back in 1989. Doing the math, Gary would have been in his early twenties, the age at which schizophrenia often emerges in a person, and this is what he is diagnosed with.

I have found that often people just need someone to listen, and that’s what I did. The two of us on a city street corner on a beautiful summer evening. Just two guys talking.

“I have tried so hard,” Gary told me. He asked me to imagine what it would be like to try to hold a job while people were talking to you from inside your own head. I cannot imagine, I told him. “I have fought back with this disease,” he added. He earned his associates degree from Alfred State, and also holds an electrician certificate. He’s tried to hold jobs, but he can’t. “I’m scared,” he said, “I try so hard but I just can’t do it.” His voice changed and there were tears in his eyes as he said this, which caused tears to well in my own eyes, and now it was me looking away uncomfortably.

It was getting dark now and I asked Gary if he has ever been harassed. A little, he told me, but nothing serious. I encouraged him to be as cautious as he could on this street. It is popular with panhandlers in the evening and I have witnessed some being verbally abused by young college kids coming here for the bars. He knew that he said, and he was planning on heading back to his apartment soon.

Before parting I handed Gary the ten dollar bill and asked again if I could take his photo. I took one of him and was surprised at the big grin he offered to the camera. “I smiled,” he said and then asked to see the photo. On an impulse I asked if we could take one together, which we did. Before parting I offered Gary a bit of encouragement and that I hoped he stays safe and that things will keep getting better. He hoped so also, he replied. Uncharacteristically of me, I almost asked Gary if I could say a prayer for him, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Instead we talked some more, and I listened.

Back at the bar as I sipped my beer I thought of Gary and hoped he was safe as he made his way back to his apartment. I also thought of how we are all connected in some indescribable way. All of us. Most the time this is difficult to remember, but other times—such as tonight—it is not. It’s as if we enter a thin space, as the Celts call it. That place that is thin enough to get a glimpse through the veil, to see the reality of life and what it means to be alive. While I didn’t offer Gary a verbal prayer, in many ways our conversation—him talking and me mostly listening to his story—was a sort of prayer, something sacred. I need to remember this more often, the sacredness of human interaction. This is what I thought about as I sipped my beer on a warm summer evening with a breeze blowing in the opened front door.

Six Churches in Three Hours…

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I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two weeks ago I was in New York City, had a day to myself, and went on a sort of self-guided tour to photograph some of that city’s magnificent churches. Whether or not one considers themselves spiritual I cannot imagine not being moved by these incredible buildings. I have, for most of my adult life, enjoyed sitting in the quiet of an empty or near-empty sanctuary. I find it so incredible calming. The first time I noticed this was after not having been in a church for many years. I was in my late twenties and had crossed the border to Tijuana for a day trip. After many beers and walking in the hot sun I passed the Catedral de Nuestra and her doors were open so I went in. I probably sat there in the cool of the silent sanctuary for more than an hour. Since then, whenever I travel, I often find myself sitting in the quiet of a sanctuary if even for just a few minutes. Anyhow, here’s a bit of info with this photo series.

I wanted to start uptown and work my way down, which is what I did. I was staying at Union Square so I took the train to the upper west side, to Riverside, and began at Riverside Church (pictured above). Why I started with this church, and why it has a bit of personal attachment, is because almost three years ago to the day, I sat in the third pew from the front at the isle seat. It was three days after our ordination as interfaith ministers and on that day it was our graduation. The church, on that day, was packed to the gills with nearly fifteen hundred people. It is a day I will never forget. After taking this photo I went and sat in the same spot. It gave me goosebumps.

The rest of the photos I will simply say which church they are as I don’t feel the need to write a dissertation on them. But, if you are at all interested in this type of thing, I urge you to google them and their histories. So many of them have had activist ministers and congregations and interesting histories. Here’s the rest of the churches.

After Riverside, I walked down to St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University (and oddly this is the only one where photography was not allowed…I found out after snapping a photo without a flash). The next church, and the most impressive is is the Cathedral of St. John, which is not only NY’s largest church it takes up multiple city blocks. I then walked over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and arrived just as they were offering Communion at their noontime mass. I sat for a few minutes and then accepted communion as the priests offered it, even though I am not Catholic and the walls did not crumble. From there I took the subway down to lower Manhattan and stopped at two of my favorite churches. First St. Paul’s Chapel (where George Washington worshiped on the eve of his inauguration), and then Trinity Wall Street. Both of these churches are very close to Ground Zero and offered aid and shelter to the rescue workers during their services. Click any image for a slightly larger view.

Urban Simplicity.

The Goodness of Others…

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There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Last night I was supremely humbled and nearly moved to tears. I have never been one to use the phrase, God works in mysterious ways, nor do I even like it. It seems too hokey to me. But here I am thinking it is appropriate to my experience last night.

It was Friday evening and I had planned on going out by bike to feed and converse with the homeless or street people. As you likely know, if you’ve been to this blog prior, I do this on occasion but lately I’ve been doing it more intentionally as part of a project for a course in which I am currently enrolled. With this said, I have to admit I just wasn’t feeling it. That’s okay, I suppose, but it is the truth. For a variety of reasons I simply felt spent, as if I had nothing to offer. Nonetheless, I loaded my bike with some bottles of water and bags of chips and headed out.

I pedaled and coasted slowly downtown and stopped at Fireman’s Park, which is a small patch of greenery near the bus station and Cathedral Park. When I arrived there were people on many of the benches, and most looked as if they could be homeless or on the verge of it. Not speaking with anyone, I stopped at an empty bench, parked the bike, and pulled out a book to read. The book, Instructions to the Cook, A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a life That Matters, is about a Zen community that started a bakery, among other ventures, in and around New York City as a way to serve the homeless. But, as the subtitle suggests, it is also advice on living a life that matters.

Reading was inspiring me, and glancing up from my book I noticed a guy sitting opposite me, maybe 20 feet away, was reading also. Just as I noticed this a woman approached him. I couldn’t hear their conversation but she had animated gestures and I’m assuming she was asking him for money. He didn’t give her money but instead handed her his book. It wasn’t until then that I noticed he was reading a bible. They talked a couple minutes longer and she walked away looking at the bible in her hands. I wondered if the book would offer her any solace.

Then a few people got up and started to walk past me. I turned to see where they were heading. There was a car parked with its trunk opened. Two guys were handing out plastic bags filled with something. A woman passed me and as she did I asked what they were handing out. “Food,” she replied. “Come on, hun,” she added, “they won’t stay long.” She thought I was homeless and was helping me get food.

Wanting to speak to the people handing out the food, I packed up my bag, strapped it to my bike, and began to walk towards the car. It’s interesting, I thought to myself, I’m a city guy who seems to blend in easily. Whether I’m in NYC, Toronto, or even Paris, people seem to assume I am a local and ask me for directions. It was at this point when I looked at my bike with a bag of my personal stuff strapped to the front and chips and water in a basket on the rear, that I realized how I could be mistaken as homeless.

When I approached the car I stood to the side of the line, waiting for everyone to go through so I could speak to the two guys. As I stood there another woman, who was now at the head of the line, looks over at me and says, “Are you a first timer?” A bit taken aback, all I could stammer was, “Yes.” Then she looks at one of the guys handing out food and says, “Give him some first, he’s new here.” Holding up my hand in a sort of protest, I was handed a bag of food, “Here you go, brother,” was what he said when he handed it to me. I thanked him and the woman, who now took her share and began to walk away, and I stood there waiting for the last of the people to go through the line.

There was no longer me and them, it was just us, and it felt odd—but extremely humbling—to be on the receiving end.

Just as the last person went through the line, and they were starting to pack up their things and close the trunk of the car, another person came up. He must have been a regular because they spoke to him by name and apologized that they did not have anything left. Awkwardly, I handed him my bag which he readily accepted.

After introducing myself to the guys I found out that they are with a group called Buffalo’s Good Neighbors. There’s a variety of people who help out, they told me, and they are there once or twice a week. They just want to help people out, he added. I asked if I could take their photo and they reluctantly agreed. I gave them a card and shook their hands before I parted. When I asked them their names, the one whose hand was still in mine at the time, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “My name is Anonymous.”

 

When I walked my bike back through the park and approached the opposite side, I could see some sweaters laid out on a bench and a guy holding one up to his chest to check the sizing. I asked him where the cloths came from and he told me, “Church people bring them.” I looked at them and could see that they were new shirts. “Go on,” he added, holding the sweater towards my chest for sizing, “they’re free, one will fit you.” I thanked him and hopped on my bike and rode the short distance to Cathedral Park. This is the park which is home to the homeless Jesus statue.

 

There were three people in this micro-park and the first that I noticed was a man sleeping on a bench. It would be impossible to miss the similarity to the sleeping man to that of the Jesus statue which were only a few yards apart. I pulled up to the other two people and asked if they wanted some water and chips. “Yes, please,” they both seemed to say in sync. After handing them each bottles of water and rummaging in the bag of chips to find the type they liked I could see that the sleeping man was awake and now facing me, so I called over and asked him if he, too, would like some water and chips. He didn’t look great as he approached so I asked him how he was doing. “I’m okay,” he said, “but I’ve got a summer cold that’s kicking my butt.” This is probably why he was sleeping covered up on such a warm evening, I thought. I can’t imagine being homeless and sick. When I’m sick all I want to do is lay in my bed or couch. This guy had a bench. 

I sat down on one of the benches and talked with the other guy for a few minutes, just chitchat about the weather, etc. Then as he was finishing his bag of chips he holds up the remaining two, crumbles them in his hands and sprinkles them on the ground for the birds. “They gotta eat, too,” he said with a gleam in his eye as he looked at me.

When I began this evening I was tired. I had been up since 4:30am, it was the end of a long work week, and I was not feeling particularly compassionate. But the series of events that transpired changed things, and in a way changed me. There was the woman who encouraged me to get in line for food, the other woman who let me go ahead of her because I was a “first timer,” the guy who was helping me pick out free clothing, and now this guy sharing his food with birds like some modern day St. Francis. My heart, which in some ways was hardened earlier, was now malleable and split wide open. The light, which is always there but sometimes difficult to see, burst forth and shone not only in the cracks of my own heart but also in those who I met this evening. 

So this is what happened on a particularly humid and windless spring evening in two downtown parks, which in many ways, woke me up to life right in front of me.

It is in giving that we receive.”

~St. Francis

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