Do you keep a journal?” When someone recently asked me this question, my reply was, “Well, in a way.” The way consists mostly of jotting down notes about small observations caught on the fly that seem worth remembering. Scraps of blank paper kept in my back pocket for immediate access and ballpoint pens in a side pocket serve as my on-the-move writing equipment. If later in the day, at my desk, I tried to recall what I had noticed without these scraps of paper, I would probably have forgotten or would be too busy then to jot down the observations. The slips eventually become a journal, because sooner or later I staple them into a spiral notebook, messy-looking perhaps, but nonetheless a record of daily events.
Since I spend much time on the subway commuting to and from America House, many of the slips concern fellow passengers, especially those who have nowhere else to sleep. Some spend their nights there, either in the car itself or on a bench on the platform, or even on the floor. Such an environment is relatively safe, but it is a sad one too, in that it highlights the situation of those who are both homeless and, in many cases, mentally ill.
Very early one recent morning, I sat opposite a middle aged man in sandals and painted toenails leaning against the rear wall of a car in restless slumber, turning from side to side. Beside him was a child’s stroller with a battered red suitcase on top. Abandoned strollers provide many homeless people with the means to transport their meager possessions from place to place.
Another early morning encounter, again at the end of the car, the safest section for many, was with an Asian woman. Neither asleep nor awake, she dozed opposite me, leaning against her own accumulated possessions. An abandoned luggage cart held what could not fit into the cloth bags behind her on the seat. Leaning back against the bags as a kind of huge cushion, she kept a wary eye on a man standing at the double doors waiting to leave at an upcoming stop.
Such sights can lead to anger that those in positions of authority do relatively little for this fragile population. But seeing them can also lead to prayer, the kind that comes from an awareness that afflicted human beings like these draw God down to them with the assurance of an eternal love. Little wonder that Jesus speaks of the last as becoming first when they leave this earth.
One recent morning I sat opposite a neatly dressed young man with his backpack on his lap. On top of it was an open paperback Bible. After finishing the section he was reading, he removed his glasses and carefully put them back in his breast pocket. The surprise for me was his youth and the attentiveness that marked his reading.
The early morning hours also see Post Office workers heading to their jobs, both men and women, in their blue pants with black stripes. Still, the unusual sights stand out most, and often they serve as examples of unexpected kindness. Once I noticed an older woman who, approached by a much younger one requesting money, offered to leave the subway at the older woman’s stop and buy the younger one a full meal. The young woman accepted and both got off at West Fourth Street. Then there is the ever-familiar sight of a stranger helping a young mother carry a baby carriage up or down a steep set of subway stairs. Not unusual, but heartening nevertheless.
Subways are indeed a microcosm of the world, with its enormous diversity. Now and then I look back through my journal entries on those small slips of paper to remind myself of the world’s needs and sorrows, but also of its occasional generosity.