Last Thursday was the anniversary of 9/11. With this in my heart, and the President’s recent announcement of renewed terrorism combat efforts weighing on my mind that morning, I was startled as I emerged from a train at 53rd street and Fifth Avenue by a homeless man ahead of me on the escalator. He was bundled up despite the warm, humid day, his clothes filthy looking, melding into one dirty khaki color. He was large, both in physical size and in presence. Turning slowly in all directions he was shouting: “China is dominating! China is dominating!” Then: “You make things, you dominate! Products! You make products, you dominate!”
Everyone walking up the “left lane” of the escalator, myself included, hesitated as they neared this agitated man, repeating each of his points for emphasis as he glided slowly up on his moving stair. We were afraid.
And I began to wonder just exactly what it was that scared us. Was everyone on edge because of the date, feeling vulnerable in New York City with extra police officers in every subway station checking bags? Were we worried that he would push us down or knock into us as he faced now one way now another to make sure we all got the message? Was it the unwashed look and smell of him we didn’t want to come into contact with?
I stayed a few steps behind the man, and saw him arrive at the top and take position between escalators, continuing his rant to subway riders flowing up and down around him. As I was exiting the station, it struck me that what this man was carrying on about was very current news. Despite his appearance, he was not disconnected from reality. He was, in fact, tuned in to the business focus of the day: the impending IPO of Alibaba, the huge Chinese online commerce site, which had been all over the news the past few weeks.
Why, I asked myself, was that so disconcerting? Does a rant connected to a very specific reality challenge our ability to stay removed from someone who is homeless, or mentally ill, or both? When we see someone as an “other” and we fear him as different, but then his concerns echo ours, perhaps he is not so different from us, from me, after all.
Humans are so complicated. We can never know someone’s story just by looking at him or her, or by listening to one rant. There are so many external factors that camouflage a life. It would be impossible to peel back the onion-skin layers of everyone we meet and see the whole story at a glance. But if we were to peel those layers away, I’m fairly certain we would find that we are all much more alike than we sometimes like to think.
The next time I find myself labeling a stranger as some sort of “other”, I’ll try to remember this, and take a breath, and embrace, at least figuratively, the stranger’s humanity as my own. If we all did that, if everyone everywhere could find it in our hearts to figuratively embrace the whole of humanity, I believe there would be no terrorism to combat. I’m only one person, but I will keep trying to do my part.
Images courtesy of Google Images, sounds and music courtesy of Freesound.