Here in the US, and around the world, the last few weeks have been a constant reminder that man is a wolf to man. My whole thing is “indifference” but even at my most detached, I’m still a human being with empathy, feelings, and emotions. I’ll be honest with you, these last few days have been rough. Part of that has been about confronting my own mortality after firmly entering my early 30s, and part of that has to do with all of the recent tragedies at home and abroad, the state of political discourse in America, and just how completely screwed up this world is. I’d been down this week, especially after the events in Orlando, and the recent killing of MP Jo Cox. Death is part of life and all, but to lose so much life because of who people who want love, or politics? I’ll admit that my opinion of humanity was not the highest. And then, last night, my faith in humanity was restored.
Yesterday I helped celebrate a friend’s birthday. There were drinks, laughter, tears, conversations about the ethics of open relationships, awkward threesomes, meeting a guy who claims to have known Joel Rifkin, and also more drinks because, why not right? Closing the night out, I decided to hit up my local convenience store to grab something to eat because I was half drunk and hadn’t eaten that day. A terrible combination for sure. I’m walking to the store and I see a man, has to be at least somewhere between 60 or 70 years old, right outside the convenience store begging for something, anything you could spare. He’s sitting there, a wizened old black man, hunched in his wheelchair, looking worn and tired, but at peace. He’s sitting directly in-front of the convenience store, whose opening heralded the increasing progression of gentrification in my neighborhood. The juxtaposition wasn’t lost on me. He asks me if I have any change to spare as I pass, I told him I didn’t, and he thanked me. He thanked me for telling him “No”. Then I stopped. What the fuck was I doing?
I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve was homeless for a period as a child. Somewhere between 1991 and 1993 my family bounced from a few homeless shelters, (the most notable of which was originally the hospital where Michael Jordan was born and is now one of the most dangerous and notorious homeless shelters in NYC) and while we were fortunate enough to never have to worry about begging to feed ourselves, I do know how dehumanizing it can feel to be poor in a city like New York. Why was I so callous and dismissive considering all of that? Why was I so quick to dismiss an elderly beggar in a wheelchair who clearly needed help? So I stopped and asked him if he needed anything from the store, because I had no currency on hand but I could make a purchase with a debit or credit card, but I could buy him something, anything. I wanted him to feel human, you know? I wanted to treat him with dignity. He requests sugar-free ice-cream, mentioning that he has diabetes. I head in, order my food, ask for help finding sugar-free ice-cream, then head out to give him his ice-cream, and that’s when I had my faith in humanity restored.
He thanks me, and then asks me if he can give me something. I’m half drunk and a New Yorker so I say “Suuuuurrrreeeeee?” in my most skeptical voice and he replies and says “I want to tell you my story”. Here’s the short version, because remember, I’m half drunk, it’s midnight, and I’m standing on Flatbush towering over a frail man in a wheelchair so I maybe missed a detail or two.
He was born in Trinidad, one of several children, and learned to play the steel drums as a child. In his youth he was a touring musician and he traveled all over the world performing in London, Sweden, Italy, France, Gabon, Canada, Japan, and here in the U.S.A, where he settled down and raised a family. He discussed these places the way you might discuss a former lover who you still pine for and smiled as he spoke. His skill with the steel drum was apparently, unparalleled, and he can still play the steel drums despite his arthritic hands, he just needs the drum a little lower because of his wheelchair. After settling down to raise his family, he taught music to children and that, passing down musical skill, was his legacy. Leaving a legacy is all that matters, he said in a tone I would describe as avuncular. He said that I should leave a legacy, and that it’s important to ignore the macos. Should I have a girl child or a boy child is irrelevant, what matters most is that I should pass my knowledge on to them. Whatever that may be.
Finally, he asked me if I knew of the song “Ebony and Ivory” to which I replied yes. He smiled, looked up at me with clouded eyes and asked me if I knew what it meant. It was a rhetorical question, because he told me what it meant. It meant that Black and White, together, make beautiful music, and that bringing people together is what matters most. Leave a legacy and bring people together. I told him that, quite literally, my parents were ebony and ivory and he smiled at me. That smile felt like the sun rising. It was as warm a feeling as I’ve ever felt. I told him I had to run, because seriously I was half drunk, hungry, and tired, and he thanked me again and shook my hand. I thanked him for the gift he gave me, and we parted ways.
Something about the whole exchange really moved me. I cried when I got home, full on ugly crying into my panini, and I did not care. I was wholly moved, my entire belief in humanity was redeemed by this tiny interaction. All the bad in life is going to happen, whether it’s a tragic loss of life, or as small as going on a bunch of bad dates. What matters in the end will be the legacy you leave behind, and whether or not you brought people together. I’ve been mulling it over since last night, and I’m still trying to figure out what I want to leave behind and how I want to bring people together, but I think I know now that that’s what I want out of life. I want to leave a legacy. I want to bring people together.
I want to try, at the very least.
Good Luck Out There.