The other day I had to go see a doctor way up near Columbia University and I was not too happy. As a matter of fact you could have cut my bitterness with a butcher knife. It was the first beautiful spring day we had so instead of basking in the 24 carat sunshine, as Truman Capote once put it, there I was schlepping to 168th Street to see some specialist who was more than likely not going to help me.
As I was waiting on the subway platform, I noticed a black man standing next to a pillar counting his change. I remember thinking, we could be twins him and me…well, if I was African American with an Afro that had a comb through it that is. But he was thin, like I am and we were dressed exactly alike in jeans, a T-shirt, a light jacket and well worn white Chuck Taylors. I watched his face as he collected what looked like all dimes, not looking all too happy at the accumulated outcome.
The train came, both of us getting off at the same stop. I was ridiculously early from fear of getting lost so I decided to make use of the extra time. I, without much thought, ambled over to my twin.
“Hey,” I said, “just wondering…have you eaten today?”
He looked at me suspiciously. “Who wants to know?” he said.
“I do…I’m curious.”
He turned his head from right to left while nervously shoving his hands into his pockets. “I had a little sumpin,” he said. “why you so interested?”
Let me just say, since my humbling hearing issues, my heart, when I least expect it, springs open like a saloon door. I knew this man needed a meal, so I decided to provide it.
I loved what he looked like. He had a beautiful face, like a minstrel straight out of Gone With The Wind, and if that’s politically incorrect, so be it. You could just see him on a hot, Georgia summer night circa 1861 idly strumming a banjo.
“I’m going to get some lunch,” I said to him, trying to sound off-the-cuff casual,” and frankly I hate to eat alone. You want to come?”
Now he’s looking at me wondering if this is a set up or not. Am I the cops, am I just nuts? What’s my deal that I’m inviting him out to eat. Totally understandable on his part, a tad insane on mine. But then again, it’s really how you look at it.
I spot a coffee shop on the corner of 165th and Fort Washington and begin walking toward it. “Come on,” I say to him. I see out of the corner of my eye he slowly follows though cautiously, like he’s waiting for his parole officer to pull up.
We enter… sliding into a booth.
“Have what you want,” I said, “and just so there’s no confusion of why I asked you to join me, just pretend you’re eating with Jesus.” I know that sounds crazy…but it was important for me, and him, that nothing was misconstrued. This was a kind act on my part more for me than him. I have found that in the midst of a serious personal crisis, the more you do for others, the less hopeless you feel concerning yourself.
Greatest lesson, by the way, I have ever learned. I did have a motive, but with perks on either end.
“So, what’s Jesus havin?” he said, when the waitress brought over menus.
“Salad, Jesus always has a salad.”
He scanned the menu keeping an eye on me the whole time before saying, “How much can I spend?”
“Is filet mignon on the menu?”
“Ain’t that steak?” He quickly perused the laminated pages. “I don’t see it.”
“Good. Then have whatever you want.”
It was going on Visa, but I could see he needed a boundary to lean on and as it turns out, so did I. When I find myself in one of these self-propelled philanthropic situations, I need to rein myself in. This guy and his impoverished state was slowly but surely breaking my heart. I wanted to take him to the Gap for new jeans when I saw the gaping hole winking at me brandishing his left hipbone. When someone like him is in need, my borders burst open.
He ordered bacon and eggs with a double side of toast. “I like toast,’ he said, when he asked if he could have an extra order.
“Me too, but I need to watch my weight.”
“Are you kiddin me? You look like a toothpick,” he said. “I never knew Jesus was so skinny.”
“Don’t forget, he walks a lot.”
When we were done he passed on dessert I guess because of the grilled cheese chaser he had as a second course. He ate like he was going to the chair with such enthusiasm that all I could think of was, my mother would have loved him. She could have fed him forever.
Having to get going, I asked for the check.
“I’m just wonderin,” he said, “what made you buy me lunch?”
“I told you, I don’t like eating alone, besides, I now need a favor from you.”
“I knew it,” he said, slamming his hand on the tabletop. “Never a clean break. I no nothin…shit…now you expect me to roll over on someboda. I knew you was a cop.”
Is that the most ridiculous thing you have ever heard? Suddenly over eggs I’m Kalinda on The Good Wife.
“I’m not a cop. I have a doctor’s appointment at 161 Fort Washington Avenue. Don’t know my way around here. Could you walk me there please?”
He gave me that confused look again. “I know where that is.”
“Great, so you’ll take me.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
I paid the check and we headed out.
“What are you looking at?” I said, seeing that he was still staring at me.
“Nothin…just never knew Jesus was such a good tipper.”
He took me right to the door of the Hirshfield Pavilion where we said our good byes. As though he was still not convinced he wasn’t going to get arrested, he walked backwards till he got to the corner.
He reluctantly waved back.
That’s then I realized I never caught his name.
I can’t speak for him, but I felt like a million bucks.
Kindness…it pays triple what it gives out, like hitting the Trifecta at Hialeah.