Ten minutes after I was fired, along with all my co-workers, I found myself standing on the corner of West 52nd Street and Seventh Avenue, out of breath. It was one of those blue-gray November evenings, when the sunlight seems to be filtered through the tiny window of a long, narrow prison cell. Midtown Manhattan is designed to make you feel powerless, the singe of the Nuts 4 Nuts carts burning a Proustian reminder into your brain that life can be as cruel and pointless as a trip to the M&Ms store.
It being 2017, I had become accustomed to this feeling of helplessness. Getting canned was just one tiny insult in a year of cartoonishly awful injustices. Sure, COBRA’s expensive, but shouldn’t I be more concerned about nuclear war?
So I did what one does when feeling powerless in the middle of the capital of the world, and I wept. Families walked past me, their coats too heavy for the fall weather, their eyes fixed on their phones. As my tears gave way to full-blown sobbing, the men in sandwich boards politely spun away, respecting my right as a New Yorker to weep in peace. I was probably the fifth Crying Stranger they’d seen that shift.
Just when I felt assured in my anonymity, a man in a giant black SUV pulled up to a red light at my intersection. He looked like one of those livery drivers I often curse at for passing me too closely when I’m on my bike, their vehicle’s shiny doors just millimeters from my legs, reminding me that I am made of bones.
The driver turned to me, his face expressionless behind a gray mustache and large aviators, then rolled down the window.
“Hey buddy, what’s wrong?”
Standing five feet from his car, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, I felt like we were on a stage, everything out of focus but the man in the window.
I told him that the billionaire owner of my company had decided to shut it down a few minutes earlier. I told him all my friends were out of work, and that almost everything I had done had been erased. I told him I was scared and angry and confused and that I didn’t know what to do. I think I managed to choke-laugh a little bit.
“Listen,” the man said, his head turned away from the red light, dozens of drivers idling behind him. “First off, fuck that guy. You don’t need him. This is going to be a new beginning for you, the start of a new chapter in your life, the start of something great. Why’d you move here anyway?”
I mumbled something about wanting to be a writer, and he cut me off.
“Yeah, exactly. Look, you can do whatever you want, and you will. Take this opportunity, and do something with it. You’re going to be OK, OK?”
The light turned green. The man asked again, a little more urgent this time: “OK?”
“Yep,” I croaked, and thanked him.
“OK, good,” he replied, and peeled away.
Dazed, I shuffled down into the subway. Two women were speaking French on the D train. I listened to them, understanding nothing, and felt a strangely comforting sense of being small — a tiny star in a galaxy of trillions, tucked away and snug in the firmament.
I was dumbfounded at how effective the driver’s gesture had been. I immediately regretted not routinely committing more random, purposeful acts of humanity of my own. I felt I finally understood why people hung up sandblasted bits of wood printed with the words “JOY” and “KINDNESS” in their kitchens.
As useless and powerless as we may feel, we still possess this remarkably powerful tool to fight life’s cruelties, to pounce on suffering where we see it, to show one another that we are human. To not punch the gas past a crying wretch in Midtown! These discrete acts alone may be small, but they give us the strength to do the actual work of improving the lives of our fellow human beings, to face the mounting horrors of the greater world together.
As the train lurched downtown, I remembered that I had seen a similar quiet humanity spring into action exactly a week before, while I was buying a bottle of liquor.
My credit card had just hit the clerk’s hand when an awful noise boomed in from the busy street outside. A good friend of mine was violently spilling his lunch out onto the curb. In Manhattan bingo, this space read, “Man in Trench Coat Projectile Vomiting in Broad Daylight.”
A woman from the neighborhood materialized and wordlessly approached him holding a paper towel. A man in some souped-up Dodge with tinted windows pulled over and handed the woman a bottle of water through his passenger-side window, then sped off. I signed my receipt and stood staring for what felt like five minutes. It was like watching a time-lapse of a flower blooming, or insects and mold devouring the beautiful corpse of some woodland mammal.
My companion took the bottle and the towel with a grim smile, his left hand never leaving the hydrant he was using to brace himself.
I had done nothing to help my friend while he was ill — the learned stoicism of the street dictated that I play it cool and give him some air. Why did that woman run over to help him? Was this the first puking stranger she had saved? The fifth? Was the driver just about to open his bottle of water, a refreshing respite after forty minutes of gridlock, before he saw my friend retching in the gutter and decided to give it away? Did the woman know that the sight of her standing there for minutes, holding a paper towel for my sick friend, an almost bored expression on her face, is something I’ll always remember?
My friend and I paused a beat, then continued down the block, where I saw the woman who had come to his aid. She was standing in the doorway, talking to someone upstairs in Spanish.
I said hello and thanked her; she turned and nodded, and closed the door. Through the window, I saw her smile.