The parade of homeless beggars in the New York subway was endless. At one time, signs were prominently posted throughout the train cars urging straphangers to resist giving to them. Although begging was supposedly illegal, there was no sign of law enforcement on this day. And really, who is to know what story is true, and who am I to judge if they are being truthful or not?
Ten years ago, I made a radical career change when I walked away from a large salary, expense account, premium health insurance, and all the glitz and glamor of the music business, to go to Ghana, West Africa for a two-month Kundalini yoga teacher-training certification program. I was fried from two decades in entertainment public relations and marketing, and needed to get as far away as possible for perspective, rest, and to find out what really mattered the most to me when stripped down to the bare necessities.
Several months after returning home, my bank account was sparse. I found myself scraping together change around the house just to buy a metro card. A dollar felt like a million bucks on some days. A quarter, like a gold. Credit cards were keeping me afloat, along with growing debt.
As I rode the subway one day back then, I watched and listened to a woman beggar. There was something about her that caught my attention enough to remove one earplug from my I-Pod. I had no money and only an empty metro card. But I knew I must help this stranger. She begged, said she was hungry and had not eaten since the previous day. I couldn't and still can't imagine the humiliation of having to beg, nor can I imagine how it truly feels to be hungry. On my most challenging days, I always had places to turn. Credit card companies were my drug dealer, continually increasing my credit line despite my situation. Why is it that the less money you have, the more cards and credit line you receive?
How often do we say, ‘I’m starving.” A figure of speech yes, but to many, a reality. After spending extensive time in Africa and Haiti over the years and witnessing first hand what real starvation is, I became embarrassed that I often forget and used those words, 'I'm starving.' But the truth is that word doesn’t belong in my vocabulary for personal use, and most likely not in anyone elses who is reading this. That day, I had a few groceries with me as I headed home – only uncooked items – rice, beans, and a bag of pretzels that I was munching on to appease my gurgling stomach.
I apologized to the lady for only being able to offer her an opened bag of pretzels. She took them with such joy. Our eyes met, sister-to-sister, woman-to-woman, human-being-to-human-being. Everyone on the train was watching. She smiled and announced as she began eating, “Now I just need enough to buy a cup of coffee to go with my pretzels.” People looked at her, listened, and then returned to their own business. Not one offer for any change was made.
In that moment, I was again reminded of how fragile it all is. Today we have, tomorrow, perhaps not. I vowed to treat all beggars with respect until knowing what their story really is. Perhaps their lives once reflected ours, perhaps they fell from an even higher place than we know today.