Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pinholes of Light


“Although there was always generosity in the negro neighborhood, it was indulged on the pain of sacrifice. Whatever was given by blacks to other blacks was most probably needed as desperately by the donor as by the receiver. A fact which made the giving or receiving a rich exchange.”

-Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

“I wondered if the world outside was so bad for us that we had to counter it among ourselves by salving one another with kindness.”

-John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

On Thanksgiving Day, I took the commuter rail out to the suburbs to spend the day with my family. The last train came back into Boston late, and I was waiting for the last 16 bus at Andrew Station. As I came up from the subway to wait for the bus, a man was sitting on the bench with a brown grocery bag full of beer. He was talking on the phone with his girlfriend or wife. They were chatting about their son, and how happy he was to be out of jail and spending time with them both. He told her that he had just gotten out of work, and that he had saved her a little bit of food. He talked about how tough jail had been, and how it was so hard to get back into the swing of things on the “outside.”

I remember thinking, “Gosh, if he only knew what I used to do for a living. He’d probably not be too pleased with me.” As he casually sipped a beer out of a smaller brown paper bag, he hung up with the mother of his child and lit one of two cigarettes in the front pocket of his hoody. He looked over at me. “Hi,” he said warmly, maybe because it was Thanksgiving or maybe because the bus wouldn’t be there for another 30 minutes and he didn’t feel like sitting in silence. “Hi,” I replied, as I looked at him and then looked away, hoping he wouldn’t see right through me as one of “them” that had put him in jail.

He reached into his bag and pulled out a beer. Holding it out, smiling, he said, “You want one?” “No thanks,” I replied. Not wanting to offend him, I added, “Trying to cut back on the drinking, you know?” “Yeah, he replied. I been there. But I just got out of jail, and I haven’t had a beer in a long time!” he said wistfully, smiling even more. “Well, thanks for offering. That’s really kind of you.” I looked away. And he did too.

A man carrying his own bag approached us, still wearing his apron from work. He sat down in between us. “How are you guys doing tonight?” He queried, warmly. “Good, you?” I asked. “Good. Just getting’ home from work from over on the waterfront.” “Oh, yeah, what do you do over there?” I asked. “I’m a cook at a new restaurant over there.” “Cool.” “Hey man, you want a beer,” the first man asked. “Yeah, that would be great. Thanks, man,” he said, as he accepted it, pulled the tab, and took a long, beatific sip. “Ahhhhhh. Hey man, could you spare a cigarette, too?” “Yeah, man, sure,” the first guy answered, delicately pulling his last cigarette from his hoody and handing it to him. He also took his lighter and lit it for him.

They started talking about where they worked and it turned out that the first man worked in the food industry as well. They both had bags of food from work and they started comparing what was good and what was not at their respective establishments. As they began to take some of the food out for a taste test, the bus came. We hopped on. The driver let us ride without paying the fare. The only three on the bus, we all went to the back. They started taking out the food again. One had some pastry and the other had some cookies, which they exchanged. “Hey man, you want some?” the first man asked me. “Sure, I’d love one,” I replied. “I also have some goodies in here,” I replied as I went into my bag and dug some lemon wafers out of a huge bag that my stepmother had given me when I left. “Take as many as you like. I’m never going to eat all of them,” I added. “Thanks man,” he said, as he dug out two big handfuls and stuffed them into the bag he already had. ““My wifey loves these.”

And so we sat, a silent three, riding through one of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods, munching the gifts of another on Thanksgiving night. “This is why I moved here,” I remember thinking. “This is what it’s all about. This is living.”

In almost 30 years of living in the suburbs and nicer neighborhoods of Boston, I had never experienced this kind of human interaction with strangers. Never. When I lived in the Back Bay on Marlborough Street, everyone walked by with their head down. Neighbors would pass uncomfortably in the hallways, never saying a thing. I never knew any of them. I never knew their families. I never knew their children. In fact, I hardly ever knew anything about any of them. And here I was, on a bus at 12:30 in the morning, in the middle of the inner city, with two men that looked nothing like me and could not have grown up more differently, and we were sharing a moment that was more profound than any moment I had shared with strangers in my life. And quite frankly, I don’t think I have ever done anything deserving of such an exchange.

More recently, I was waiting for the 15 bus on Dudley Street the other afternoon, and a Hispanic guy about my age was waiting next to me with his girlfriend. They were totally in love, taking pictures of themselves with a camera phone and quickly turning it around to review them. Unsatisfied, he approached me. “Would you mind?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, as I readied the frame. “Ok, ready, one two three whiiite booooy,” I said playfully, as they giggled at me. “Thanks, man,” he said, taking the camera back. “No problem,” I replied, as he took a cigarette from his ear and lit it.

A few moments later, a haggard older man, clearly given a rough lot in life, approached the couple with difficulty. “Hey, man, could you spare a cigarette?” he hoarsely implored. “Naw, man, this is my last one,” he replied. The man sighed and walked away. The other paused, looked after him and called out, “Here, you want to finish this?” The older man turned back. “Yeah, man, thanks,” he said, as he took it, puffed hard, exhaled, and continued walking.

I have begun to learn that these are the kinds of things that happen every day in the inner city; the kinds of things that we will never hear about in our newspapers or on our radio programs. Small acts that reveal swollen hearts; a breathtaking solidarity between strangers that, in a matter of nine months, has taught me more about living than all of my previous years combined.

1 comment:

GBCPC said...

You are truly a prophet, Bobby (Eph. 4:11)

Ralph Kee