“I just got out of Rikers Island…”

A few weeks back, I was walking around Union Square on a Friday night. At this particular moment, I did not have my headphones in my ears, something that is habit for me when I’m alone. I got stuck standing at a corner as the light changed and cars began zooming by in front of me. I heard a man say, “Excuse me miss,” and through the corner of my eye, saw him approaching. Normally, this would be my cue to walk faster. I had nowhere to go and he was already at my side, talking to me.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he continues. I’m still contemplating my exit strategy and rolling my eyes as I turn to face him.

“I’m not a bum or nothing,” as he motions to a homeless man asking for change, “I just, I just got out of Rikers Island…”

Now at this point, most people might’ve fled. For whatever reason, his honesty or my slight-shock, I planted my feet into the concrete and wanted to hear what he had to say. My mind immediately went to the Central Park 5 documentary I had just watched and all I could think of were the people wrongly imprisoned. Statistics of those falsely accused and jailed flashed through my mind. I thought of recent articles I’d read about the abuse so many prisoners endure, and how seldom anyone helps them. As this all rushed through my head, I wanted to show this man some respect. Whatever his story, he had done his time and was now a free man.

So he had my attention. I looked down, where he held an I.D. card and paperwork, plus a few dollars. “I was down at the church there,” he pointed down the street and told me the name. “Don’t get me wrong, they helped me. I got a shower, they gave me these clothes.” He had a college sweatshirt and grey sweatpants on. “They were going to get me a bus ticket home to Trenton, but when they called, no one answered and they couldn’t verify if I lived there or not. You can go down and ask them, here, look at my paperwork… if you could… any help. I’m so sorry.” Those last three words dripped with humiliation. I’ve never heard an apology like that in my life.

I knew I had a twenty dollar bill in my purse, it was the only cash I had on me at the time. In a second, as this stranger explained his predicament to me, I decided I was giving it to him. Clearly he needed the money way more than I did. I slipped my hand in my purse and told him it was okay. I handed my money to him, folded, and he said, “thank you so much.”

He then looked down and saw the bill amount.

He began to tear up and seemed to be struggling for words. I asked him his name and he responded, “here, do you want to see my papers?” and extended his hands out toward me. It became clear to me this was out of habit, something over the course of his life he’d gotten used to doing, to having to do. I looked him in the eyes and assured him, “no, I just want to know your name.” He said, “Edward,” and asked me mine. I told him, and then added, “Edward, good luck. Truly, I want this all to work out for you.”

He had so much emotion in his voice, and in his face. I’ve never seen such gratitude expressed from a stranger. I told him, “stop now, you’re going to ruin my mascara,” to make light of this moment. He said, “I’m gonna pray… wish… and think good things for you.” He looked at me with these eyes, a mix of shame and appreciation, I wish I had the words to describe them. People and cars rushed around us, and we were two strangers sharing this moment. He held his arms in an awkward posture, a hesitant embrace. I just went in and hugged him. I honestly can’t explain what came over me, it’s something I would never do. In that moment, I felt so very human. I told him he only needed $6.00 more to get that ticket. I raised my voice and cheered him on, “you got this Edward. That’s easy!” I told him to be well and good luck again. We were both smiling as we went separate ways.

I turned away and was able to cross the street. I wiped my tears and as I walked on, the impact of that interaction began to hit me; I was so emotional from it. I don’t talk to strangers, I don’t even make eye contact when I’m out. I avoid interactions particularly with men due to years of dealing with street harassment (and PTSD). So this was far out of my usual character and my comfort zone. I was struck by Edward’s candor, and his appreciation for not only the money, but for the humanity and small bit of kindness I’d afforded him. The fact I looked him in the eye. The fact I stopped and spoke to him. The fact that I wanted to know his name, and didn’t care to look at his “papers” for proof. The fact I hugged him when I knew that’s what my fellow human being needed. I could feel my heart warming up in my chest as I walked through Union Square. I feel that same sensation now as I type this story.

I don’t know Edward’s story. I wish I did, honestly. I find myself thinking of him, and wanting to know about his life. I don’t know if he was in Rikers for a crime he did commit or not. I don’t know if he was in for a short while or most of his life, whether his sentence was for something minor or a violent crime. I do know in that moment, we both were being as authentic as people can be. That was one of the most real hugs of my life. I’ve never had an experience like that with a stranger, let alone someone whose second sentence to me is that he’d just gotten released from prison. The impact will be with me for a long time.

I remember as a child, laying in my bed at night and saying my prayers. My mother still recalls how I prayed for so long, for everyone and everything. One of my last prayers was always for the “prisoners in jail.” When we’d drive past the jail in my town, I’d look at the small cell windows and think about who was inside. To this day, I still do. I was often told that once I grew up, I’d feel differently about those prisoners. I was repeatedly told I was “too sensitive” and caring about everyone was absurd. When I imagine little me being told these things, I shake my head. I’m now an adult, the grown-up part is still up for debate, but I still feel the same. Despite the years that have tried their best to jade me, I still have hope we all can get along and truly progress as a society. I don’t think my feelings or beliefs are ridiculous. I’m so glad I haven’t turned completely hopeless and bitter by time and by life. From people like Edward, those who enter my life for a brief moment, to my children who are around me day-in and day-out, I’m reminded that we as humans are capable of so much more. We all deserve to receive more love and we owe it to those around us to be more compassionate.

Be kind to others. It always comes back to you, twofold.

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