“I am an invisible man . . . invisible, understand simply because people refuse to see me” (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man). On the train heading north beneath Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, the woman slumped across two seats, clutching her belongings in her arms, three more paper bags on the floor below. She wore a ragged winter coat, and her eyes were closed as she slept, oblivious to the rest of us in the crowded car. It’s an all-too-familiar sight on New York subways, particularly on winter nights when the cars provide refuge and a little warmth for some of the city’s homeless. Standing above her, a tall African-American man prepared to get off at the next stop. When the doors opened, he reached over, put a $20 bill inside her coat and wordlessly left the train. No one saw his act except me. The woman slept on, and I imagined her waking up, perhaps at the end of the line, and finding the money hidden in her coat.
I don’t know whether this single act of kindness made much of a dent in the woman’s life, let alone in the matter of New York’s homelessness, now at its highest level since the Great Depression, with an estimated one in every 147 New Yorkers currently homeless. Nor do I know how many other acts of kindness were happening across the city. All I know is that the world seemed a kinder, more hopeful place.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise (Luke 10:36-7).