This morning, after my dentist appointment, I rushed down the block towards the subway station hoping to make it to work before 10 a.m. It was cold. Really cold. As my list of things to do swirled in my head, my eye suddenly caught a blanket shaking at the corner of 59th and Lexington. Except, it wasn't a blanket shaking. There was an older woman whose body was curled in the fetal position on the concrete, wrapped in a thin blanket. Though her body remained tightly wound, her head stretched upward seeking the generosity of strangers, her eyes gazed a few feet ahead of her at the passing of feet. She was shaking. Profusely. I watched a stranger drop their gloves at her feet. Her head remained dropped, but she lifted her eyes in appreciation. "Oh my goodness," I said as I approached her, "you must be freezing! Please take my hat." I outstretched the hat towards her, but she was too cold to reach out to it, so I dropped it in her lap. She nodded her head. "Thank you," she whispered.
And then, I kept walking. Because that's what you do, right? Carry on with your life? Move on to the next obligation? I walked down the subway steps on 59th and waited for the 6 train. Something whispered inside of me, "that's all?" I stared straight ahead waiting for the screeching of an approaching subway train. "She was freezing, Ker," the voice whispered. "Go back." I didn't listen. The subway came and I got on. The train conductor called out, "train traffic up ahead. We're going to be delayed for a moment."
"Go Back." it whispered. I stared ahead, glazing over blank faces and trying to avoid looking at the train door which remained open. Two minutes we waited. The train started moving again.
I'm not listening, I thought to myself. I should go back...I'm not listening to...wherever the voice was coming from, be it my heart, or my conscience, or my guilt, or the universe. Regardless where it came from, I wasn't listening.
Oh well. Too late, my rationality chimed in as the subway jerked to the next stop.
We got to 51st street. The doors opened. It's not too late, I thought...8 blocks away...I could walk back to her in 8 minutes. She's probably gone though. Someone else is surely helping her. Gotta make it to work on time. "Watch the closing doors," the conductor yelled out. The doors didn't close. The conductor yelled out again, "doors closing!" The doors remained open. "Go." it whispered. The doors started to close, I grabbed my bags and dashed through the open door. Back to 59th Street I headed. I counted the blocks as I frantically walked. Definitely going to be late to work. I passed the stores I had just past, watched people sipping their coffees and rushing to work. My bags bumped against passerbys. I grabbed a hot tea to give, just in case. Finally, I reached the corner again. She was still there. Someone had taken off their jacket and wrapped it on her. Two people had already left hot coffee by her side.
I kneeled next to her. The hat I dropped by her side had fallen off. "Your hat fell off," I said. This time I put on her head. "Can I take you somewhere to get warm. Are you freezing?" She didn't recognize me from before, probably because I hadn't looked her in the eye and probably because she likewise avoided eye contact. "I'm not too cold," she replied, still shaking and looking down. "People are layering me up with clothes. My legs are in pain. I'm just gonna stay here." I paused. "Ok. that's ok...ok." I mumbled, wondering what else to do. I stared at her, finally asking, "But..are YOU ok?" She finally gazed up at me. "You know," she said, "all morning I sit here and people drop things at my feet, but not any one ever ask me if I'm ok."
She paused. And gazed back towards the concrete. Someone dropped some change in her cup.
"But I'm ok." she finally said. "I spend the nights in the shelter, sometimes at a friends' house. I'm ok. Thank you for asking ma'am."
"Ok." I replied, knowing that while she was surviving, she was barely ok. "Ok. I'm glad you're ok." I said, nodding one too many times.
We exchanged a few more words and then I crossed the street to get back on the 59th Street Subway. I started crying as I walked away. Crying because she was suffering and I had walked by her and it took me 9 blocks to turn around. Crying because I was someone who had thrown something at her feet. Crying at the justifications we tell ourselves to pretend we're not responsible. Crying at the hundreds of people who walked by her each day, pretending not to see. Crying at the kindness of those who gave her their clothes. Crying at the thought that no asked her if she was ok. Crying for the millions of other people who only want people to care enough to ask the three simple words of "are you ok?" Crying at the mere thought of the magnitude of suffering in this world. Crying at how it was only after I looked in her in the eye that my heart awakened to her need.
When I exited the subway in Brooklyn and approached the court house, I looked at the clock and tears brimmed my eyes once again. After all of my concern with timing, I was only twelve minutes late. I breathed a sigh of relief, "I'm ok on time," I thought. And then I paused, feeling the heaviness of the unspoken story encompassed in a shivering woman's words of "I'm ok." My heart hurt. But on to the next obligation.