Today I made a friend. He thanked me for taking his picture. But I should back up first before I tell you about him. Monday morning – our last day in Manhattan - my (almost)17 year old son, Jacob, and I trekked over to Tompkins Square Park - possibly the most beautiful park in New York City. The lower east side, or LES, is not where you find tourists. There are no tour buses, no museums or souvenir shops. Certainly no chain hotels. The park is in the area referred to as "Alphabet City" due to the Avenues A, B, C..... etc. It is comprised of apartment buildings, known as tenements in the earlier part of the 20th century. On the ground floor are little shops - groceries, laundry, tattoos, psychics, restaurants, and many shuttered vacancies. In most cities and, indeed, in New York City, the buildings and businesses define the neighborhoods. Here, though, in the LES, the people and their great variety of color, faiths and backgrounds are the proud backbone and definition of ‘neighborhood’.
We were there to help out an amazing organization called Food for Life. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday they are there, year round, rain or shine, to help serve lunch to the neighbors there. They may or may not be homeless, they may or may not be employed. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that this hot meal is needed to feed the body and soul.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ~Winston Churchill
When we got there to help set the makeshift tent up, the neighbors were already waiting. There, lined up against the rod iron park fence, were perhaps 15 wheeled carts - as a kid we called them granny carts - parked with great care and organization. I suspect that a few contained all the worldly possessions the cart owner had. But they weren't locked up or tethered. These neighbors have a level of trust in each other and in the organization serving them. What I found humbling was that they waited with patience this current world of self entitled selfishness has tossed out the gold gilded window.
Jacob's job was to pour and serve the lemonade. Mario said that Monday is pasta day. It looked (and tasted) wonderful. Also being served was a tossed salad and heavenly banana bread with yummy icing! As the LES residents made their way through the line most had a smile. Some helped each other. Others were purposely silent loners. There was a lovely older Asian lady Mario greeted in her language. She gently put her hand on my arm and smiled. "Thank you," she very quietly shared with me, her eyes very carefully connected to mine. There was a mom with a toddler in a stroller. The cherub faced little boy had the most beautiful smile and he stretched his bare foot out just far enough to poke me with his toe and giggle. One man was dressed in a full out 3-piece suit, complete with a buttoned up vest and a satchel - just a bit disheveled, not quite put together. I don't think he was an executive on break. There is a story there somewhere. I just hope he isn't the only one that knows it.
When the rain was coming down in buckets I noticed a couple of men standing out in the open, their paper plates of food exposed to the downpour. I walked over and stood with them holding our two umbrellas. "You're too kind, too kind," one said to me. A short, older man was wandering around at this point and I asked him a few times if he wanted to eat. "No, no....". Finally I got him to join us under the tent and take a plate of food. Again, I was thanked by someone for getting him to eat. One of the volunteers? A neighbor? I'll never know.
Then I met my, now, new friend, "Smiley", a tall man with, of course, a broad smile. I learned he once lived near Albany and basketball was his game “back in the day”. When he asked where I was from, he wanted to know if it was true that Buffalo was so close to Canada that one could just walk there. “When you gonna be back?” he asked a few times. I didn’t have an answer. But he hugged me, and thanked me. So far I had held umbrellas. They thanked me.
As the storm waned and the tent came down, the supplies put back in the van, the volunteers made sure that everyone had a chance to eat. They looked around as they were packing up, taking time to pull anyone in who may need a meal and serving them from the pots in the van. They never said “no” to anyone. Instead, they asked if they wanted more. No judgements. No asking them to qualify need. You see, people can be impoverished in the soul with wealth in the pocket. Perhaps someone who came and stood in line needed soul nourishment. A hug. A conversation. A smile. No one asked for money. None asked for one of our umbrellas. Nobody wanting to know, “what’s in it for me?” One young man walked away with his plate of food and four empty plastic cups. Jacob remarked to me later, “I never thought, “who doesn’t own cups?”
We took a couple pictures of the local volunteers and visiting volunteers from Japan and Finland, and Jacob from the exotic shores of Lake Erie. After saying our good byes, we walked across the street in search of the nearest subway entrance. There on the corner was Smiley. He had a wonderful chat with Jacob and then as we were about to leave he asked if I would take his picture. He struck a proud pose, I took the picture and he asked if I would take another for him. I realized later that possibly the digital era had not yet caught up to Smiley and he wanted a second picture printed for him. He thanked me for taking his picture and he was beyond thrilled to see the image on the viewfinder, and I got my second hug from him – and a gentle kiss on the hand – before we headed down to East Houston Street leaving Smiley on his corner.
That afternoon I opened my Facebook newsfeed to read this meme: “You have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” I asked Jacob what his favorite thing was he did during our four day trip to the city. He said it was a tie: the Fuerza Bruta show and helping out that morning in the park, meeting the neighbors. Who says we weren’t repaid? I think we were given a soul full of payment.