The Midday Drunk

untied shoes

I crossed the yellow-cab dotted avenue, the sound of trash truck engines and creaks filling the midday air. Walking along this fast-paced New York City sidewalk, my mind wandered to the cloud of vapor I was breathing into the frosty ten degree air, until I became distracted by a young man limping drunkenly across the intersection. ‘Stay away from him,’ I thought, and the language of the strangers around me seemed to say the same thing.

Ready to avoid him, I watched as an older African-American woman, cozy in her tennis shoes and long, beige wool jacket, pointed to the drunken man’s shoelaces. “Tie your shoe laces, honey,” she said gently.

Her kindness let down my guard. Their brief interaction slowed them down so that I was now next to the drunken man. I examined his clothes, looking for something to judge him by. His white sneakers worn under camo-print sweatpants were both untied. We walked side-by-side, and as we exchanged smiles, I saw a two inch scar embedded in his buzzed scalp. He had a brain injury.

“You should take my flyer! You should take my flyer!” he said, and I realized he was employed as a flyer distributor. He then shouted something that was incoherent to me, and uncertain of what to say, I smiled politely. “Take care,” I said, bidding him warmly. “Take care!” he shouted, with a smile on his face, and we both went about our days.

I thought about the woman pointing to the mans shoes: it felt as if time froze around her act of kindness, and activated a desire for warmth in me, when moments before, I had been preparing to be cold. Her humanity had allowed me to keep myself from robbing the humanity of another.

2 thoughts on “The Midday Drunk

  1. I will confess … about 15 years ago, a professor emailed me to tell me she couldn’t make it to a required training session (I was the coordinator and trainer) because her mother was very, very ill, and she needed to travel out of state to be with her. I was really irritated because I knew it would increase my work load, and I would have to reassign her work etc. I was on my way to her office to discuss it and see if she could postpone it until after the end of the semester, which was only two weeks away, but I stopped in the main office to check my mailbox first.

    As I was sorting my mail, our Dept Chair stopped to chat with me, and I mentioned this prof’s problem. Before I could say anything more, my Chair said, “Oh Dear God, that is so terrible. She must go at once to be with her mother! Family always comes first. I’m so glad you told me and that you are going to make arrangements to help her.” Naturally, I kept my mouth shut about what I had been feeling and said of course I was going to work out the details with the prof so she would be released from the training and all the final assessment.

    I went back to my office and just reflected on what had happened – I felt mortified that my initial reaction had been so very selfish and so lacking in compassion. Of course I KNEW all of these things and actually held those values myself, but I was one of those A-personality types that works longer and harder than others and has ambition enough for everyone. (Just writing that now makes me laugh at how silly it seems.) I thanked God that I had run into my Chair first, and I believe God put her there for me to learn what I REALLY needed to learn to be a better person.

    The experience hit me like a sledgehammer and changed my behavior permanently. I am still ambitious, but everyone who works for or with me knows that I put into action what I believe – family first. And that means other values I held but didn’t necessarily put into action became much more integrated into my everyday life. I feel closer to God for putting into action what the Qur’an teaches us – compassion and mercy. I remember this lesson frequently, and I thank God that I was able to express the compassion my colleague needed … her mother died a week later, and I felt thankful had learned my lesson in time to help her go through that terrible loss of her mother without having to think about her work. God sends us what we need if we are open to embracing it, like you were.

    1. Karen, your personal story hits me hard as I realize how much I relate to your initial reaction. It’s unbelievable how much individual power we have to create harm or good, difficulty or ease. You mentioned, ‘Of course I KNEW all of these things and actually held those values myself,’ which is so poignant. We can hold so many values dear to ourselves, and yet become engrossed in our own perspective and point-of-view and see, feel, and act differently than we would hope. Thank you for reading and sharing.

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