“Proximity… made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own.” — Brian Stevenson, Just Mercy
Because I have night classes, I don’t typically leave the house before 10 am, which means, I don’t typically have a morning commute. The past few weeks, however, I’ve picked up a few freelance projects which have jolted me from being a night owl into a morning bird. With this new schedule comes a new commute, new quest to find the fastest route from my apartment to the train.
Recently, I discovered that path takes me down 82nd street, past Holy Trinity Church.
The first few mornings of this commute, I was struck by the number of people on the 82nd block. On any given morning, anywhere from 5 to 30 men and women could be found walking around, drinking coffee, eating sandwiches, carrying their bags of possessions, looking disheveled, and tired.
The first morning on this block, I felt a little out of place, a little fearful, a little concerned about what was happening. But, being in a hurry, I didn’t take much time to ponder the situation — I let myself feel compassion, then hustled by to catch the train.
As any New Yorker knows, the fastest route isn’t always consistent — it all depends on catching the right crosswalks at the right moment. So, for a period of time, my commute took me away from that block and away from Holy Trinity Church and its morning crowd. It wasn’t intentional, just the luck of the green light.
One night during this time, during the dead of winter and some of the coldest days of the year, I was commuting home from school and decided to get off the train one stop early. It might have been to avoid construction or some other reason for the sake of efficiency, or it might have been a calling from above — either way, as I was leaving the station, I made eye contact with a woman who was in the middle of making a wooden bench her bed for the night. Surrounded by bags and wearing layers of tattered winter gear, I was struck by the brightness of her eyes and the confidence she beamed.
When we made eye contact, I felt like we had known each other for years, like she was a long lost friend. I smiled, she smiled back and said hello in a clear, sweet voice. Quickly we were caught up in conversation about the weather, where I was from, where she was from, and finally, where she called home. Tonight, she explained, it was here in the subway — the church on 82nd provides showers in the morning and she has to sleep close by to get there on time.
When you get one shower per week, you can’t risk missing it.
In that moment, I felt a deep dichotomy — here was this woman who was kind, funny, outgoing, confident, someone I could call my friend, sleeping in the subway to get a shower in the morning. At a loss for what to do, I asked if she wanted something to eat. She said yes please, and that she would like to come with me.
So, I grabbed one of her bags, she grabbed the other, and together we walked out of the station and into the diner across the street. As soon as we entered, the people behind the counter raised their eyebrows, became defensive. She told me her order, “chicken soup with extra broth and an avocado.” I reiterated it to the chef. When they produced her food, she asked me to see if they could serve another way, so she could keep some for tomorrow. The cashier told me it couldn’t be done. I, in turn, communicated the message back to my new friend.
I realized I was a translator, a bridge, a voucher for this woman to access what this diner had to offer. I was struck by the inhumanity of it all. This woman was kind and lovely. She was the product of her life circumstances in the same I am the product of mine. And yet it was as if she needed someone to validate her humanity. As if her circumstances removed her dignity, her worth, her value as a human.
After finishing eating, I turned to leave and she asked if it would be ok if she stayed a little while longer in the diner, if they allow people like her in here. I said yes and hoped I was right.
Walking home that night I couldn’t help but wonder: what disqualified this woman from eating at a table? What made her need a translator to talk to the people behind the counter? Was it because she didn’t have a home? Because it had been 6 days since she had a shower? Because she was carrying all she owned in two large bags at her side? What does it mean to be fully human and why did they, did she, assume she didn’t have it?
About a month went by until I found myself again on 82nd, and again, amid a crowd of men and women who were also congregating on the block. Running late, the first thought to enter my head was, “Oh yea, I forgot about this. I need to remember to not come down 82nd.”
In an instant, I recognized the fear, the othering, the dehumanizing of my thoughts. I thought of the woman, our conversation, the fact that she and many others slept outside, or in a subway station, to make it here, to this block on time for a shower.
I recognized that in that moment, I wanted to avoid feeling the discomfort, avoid looking at the pain, avoid feelings of empathy, avoid being surrounded by people who I perceive to be radically different than me. Different enough to see them as a nuisance, a distraction, a speed bump in my morning commute.
It’s easy to take someone out to dinner on your own terms, when you have time, when the person you’re helping is kind, clean, well spoken. It’s another to pursue proximity, to get close, to confront my stereotypes and biases and dehumanizing thoughts about people who might not be so similar to myself.
But what does it mean to be human? In that moment, in the desire to change my morning commute, I realized I was like the men behind the counter at the diner. I wanted to move on, get out, avoid.
At that moment, the words and message of Brian Stevenson echoed through my head: “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, the condemned.” I realized I had a choice to make: find a new commute, or get closer. Create distance, or pursue proximity.
That morning, I emailed Holy Trinity Church — I said, I want to join you, I want to help.
I need to get closer. Not just to people who I deem worthy of my time, but people who I see as different. I need to get close enough to others to see the trueness of myself, humanity in all of us. Proximity breeds urgency, compassion, relationships.
Instead of getting frustrated, feeling fear, changing my commute, I am going to 82nd street on purpose, spending time getting to know the men and women who drink coffee and eat sandwiches together. I don’t know what I will learn, or what I will do, but I do know that the first step to creating change, celebrating humanity, is getting close.