February 23, 2005
"You know a man is telling the truth when he's down on his knees," the homeless man said on his knees in the middle of the train, careful to keep his balance as the train whipped around a turn. "I need your help. I need your help. I need your help," his voice cracking with desperation.
Growing up in the city, you become hardened to people asking for money. They're everywhere you turn: on the corner near the grocery store, in the middle of the street at a highway exit, in front of the museum, and, of course, on the train. Over time, you develop a blank stare, a casual shrug, and you just keep walking. If you wouldn't, I'm fairly certain you would eventually be crushed under the emotion of it all.
On the train tonight, the blank stare was in full effect: everyone on the crowded train car found a different point in the distance to escape into, some giving the casual shrug or pantomiming a search for phantom change, others simply pretended that nothing was happening.
But then something did happen: the man started crying and something about those tears broke the spell that had fallen over the train. People started reaching into their wallets and pulling out money. The man stood up, wiped at his eyes, and walked to the outstretched hands, thanking them and moving on. It was a tiny amount of money and it was a temporary fix for his problems, but it was extraordinary to watch that mask of indifference come off of so many different faces. Even he seemed surprised.
Now I'm sure a number of your friends would say that we did the wrong thing tonight, that we gave a man a handout instead of giving him something lasting. But Mr. Bush, I ask you: if a man kneels in front of you, crying and begging for change, and you've got the ability to give him something--a quarter, a dollar, even a five if you have the means--then how couldn't you?