Any Change Sir?
The stage is the corner of 28th and Broadway, the time of performance is 1:45 AM, and the characters are myself, walking to the subway after a twelve hour shift at work, a man I thought was a police officer who ended up being an MTA employee in dim lighting and a reflective vest, and two people engaging in what could have potentially evolved into domestic violence on the street.
“Are you seeing this?” I said to the MTA worker walking beside me, as this strange couple walked down the street, the man screaming loudly in the woman’s face about something I couldn’t quite make out. “Should we do something?”
“Ya I see it, and no. It’s human nature man,” he replied, “It’s already been written, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. It’s in G-d’s hands now.”
“Is it?” I asked back.
“Ya man, it’s been written.”
“Well what if it’s been written that I stop whatever’s going on? Maybe prevent something bad from happening?”
“Well he ain’t dumb enough to actually kill her. And if he does, he will go to jail.”
“Nobody would see it.”
“We are prime witnesses now, so he will go to jail.”
“Well I’d rather not let it get to that point.”
“It’s been written man. It’s gonna be.”
“Well sometimes we just gotta hope for a better story,” I said. “I’m gonna follow. You have a good night though.”
So I followed the couple down the street. I put my headphones in and walked close behind them, keeping an eye out for anything violent. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t being inconspicuous enough to go completely undetected, and decided that I would just confront them directly. “Umm. Hello?” I said, shyly approaching them, “Is everything alright?” The couple stopped. They both stood in place for about three seconds, staring at me, but the woman quickly walked away. The man, however, just kept looking me up and down incredulously and quite angrily. I’d caught his attention, and he wasn’t going anywhere. He was big. He put his hands on his hips, looked me in the eye, and said, “Well the white man wants something else from the black man.” I was starting to realize this might have been a bad idea, but I persisted.
“No,” I replied in a shocked tone. “I don’t want anything from you, I just want to make sure everything’s okay here.”
“No. No I’m not okay – woman come here right now!” he yelled to the lady who continued walking down the street, before turning back to me. “So what do you want? Are you here to help the black man or the black woman?!”
“Well I’m here to help everybody.”
“Whose friend are you?!”
“I’m trying to be everybody’s friend.”
“Well what do you want to do now?!”
“I don’t know, I just saw you guys and I wanted to talk for a second, maybe we can work th-”
“What does the white man who has taken everything want from me want right now?! What do you want to take?!”
“Well, your sadness I guess, or your anger.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
“Well I thought maybe if we calmed down and talked-“
“I need a thousand dollars TONIGHT.”
“Umm, I can’t really help you with that problem, I’m sorry. But I just wanna make sure you remember not to do anything tonight that you might regret tomorrow.”
“Do you want to fight me?!”
“Of course not! I just -”
“The white man has taken everything from me! Do you want to fight me? Do you want to take something else from the black man?! Just leave me alone, white man.”
At this point, I smelled the alcohol on his breath, and figured that my not having a clear plan for this interaction wasn’t the only reason things were going south, so I told him I was sorry for bothering him and to have a good night. As I turned to leave, I faced a car with a window cracked open, and a woman witnessing all of this commotion inside the car. “You aren’t my friend!” he yelled back to me as I retreated to the subway. I shrugged and walked away, saying to the lady in the car as I passed by, “Sometimes you just have to try.”
So, as I made my way home, I couldn’t help by ask myself a ton a of questions as I reviewed the events of the night in my mind. Should I have given him the money that I had just worked twelve hours to make? (His $1,000 demand had eventually changed to $100) Would that have actually aided any of the real issues at hand? What could I have said to change anything? But most of all, I couldn’t help but ask myself if the late night MTA employee was right. “It’s already been written, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.” Is it? I can’t imagine it is, or in the very least, I can’t imagine that any creed would allow for us to operate in that way. You can justify anything that way, from racism, to sexism, to anti-semitism. Taking stands is what separates the people who make change from the people who are changed, sometimes in ways that they don’t particularly like. But, with that being said, I didn’t change anything. I didn’t talk the couple into each other’s crying arms, and I didn’t brighten up the lives of anybody. I failed.
Later that night I ran into a friend of mine named Armando. Armando is a 58 year old man, he has diabetes, and he has been experiencing homelessness for a long time. His story is quite odd, and most of the time I’m not sure if half of it is true. And quite frankly, I’m not sure if he even knows what’s true and what’s not anymore. But nonetheless, what started out as me giving him a quarter whenever I saw him on the street eventually evolved into a strange friendship. Now he hugs me whenever we meet, gives me some reason why he is out at whatever ungodly hour it happens to be and not back at the homeless shelter, and tells me that he needs five dollars for something to eat, which I usually give him.
After my encounter earlier that night, I came home to find him once again standing around the subway station near my home, alone at 3 AM. He saw me and we spoke for a bit; I asked him why he wasn’t at the shelter, and I told him I would only give him money if he promised to go home, spend some of it tonight on food to eat, and then save the rest for food tomorrow. Which, he promised to do, and even seemed excited about the plan. I still hope he kept his promise.
The reason that I mention this is because for me, it raises questions that stood in complete contrast to the event earlier that night. Earlier, I had witnessed a potential crime and couldn’t help but try to stop it. But whenever I speak to Armando, I can’t help but wonder if maybe it isn’t even worth it to help? Am I doing anything constructive? Am I really affecting any bigger picture, or am I just contributing to the prolonging of this one person’s suffering? I understand that every life is precious, and I would even put money on the fact that Armando smiles maybe three times a month, and two of them are reserved for when he speaks to me, and the other is when he is on crack (Usually at around 4 am on my building stoop).
But every so often I throw my hands in the air and ask myself what more can I do? I’ve been to London, Israel, Poland, Canada, and most of America, and I see an enemy called “Suffering” that I simply can’t defeat, and it pains me. And it’s not for lack of trying, I tried to help those people on the street! I try to convince Armando to make good decisions! But nothing is changing! Goliath has come to fight with a helmet on, and my slingshot simply can’t defeat him. One might say the solution is to encourage more people to bring slingshots, to lend a helping hand, but there are so many already doing just that in the New York City area alone. There are so many protests, so many volunteer groups, so many organizations trying to help solve problems like homelessness, and domestic violence, and drug addiction, but I’m still left to toss and turn at night trapped in a world of despair that I seemingly can’t change. I often wonder why I even try, what am I doing? People tell you that “Every life is precious, bring joy to each one”. Find those whose spirits of flame have been extinguished, either from a big bad wolf blowing their houses down and their fires out, or those who closed the glass doors of their lamp boxes, allowing their own flames to suffocate. Inspirational phrases are easily shared, but just as easily forgotten, so what am I left to do? Do I respond to the calls of the depraved only to be shut down by a fate that I can’t control, that is so steadfast and unchanging that at times it does almost seem “written”? Or do I give up?
Sitting on the subway on the way home, by way of an answer, I suddenly began thinking about none other than Moses. More specifically, the verse “He saw that there was no man”(Shemos 2:12) and he acted. “I’m Moses here,” I thought to myself, but I was quick to realize one (Of many) major difference between the two of us. I failed, Moses didn’t. Or did he? Things didn’t exactly go well for him immediately afterwards, and how did Moses know his actions were right and justified? Where did his confidence to act come from? Rashi quotes a Midrash that claims that Moses stopped to look into the Egyptian’s future for possible righteous individuals in his genealogy, or what can be understood through this lens as Moses checking to see if good would ultimately come out of this man’s story. And, when Moses saw no potential for good, he killed him to save the man that this Egyptian was attacking. This is the Moses of the Midrash, the Moses of Rashi. He is powerful, confident, and divine. I am certainly not the Moses of the Midrash. Even now, as I recall the drunken screams of a foolish man on a street corner at 2 AM, I begin to doubt whether or not I should have gotten involved in the first place. Perhaps I really ruined something by stepping in? His marriage? His family life? His story? I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the Moses of the Midrash had these answers when he intervened in his struggle.
However, I then began to wonder whether or not I was more similar to Moses than I was allowing myself to be. I was fixated on failing to be the Moses of the Midrash, but then I stopped to think about the Moses as depicted in the literal text of the verse. It was suddenly THAT Moses that I began to relate to. Was he confident? Did he question his actions? We aren’t given any information regarding his mental world, only that he saw injustice and sought to mend it, but the immediate ramifications must have been troubling to say the least. To be ratted out and banished from his home, forced to flee from his life and family, all because he chose to help one individual, and in the face of an unstoppable enemy, the Egyptian Empire, nonetheless? Sure the story ends well, but those ramifications don’t surface until years later. But maybe that’s the point! What was truly admirable about Moses’s saving of the Hebrew slave was that he didn’t worry about the overall scope of the situation, but simply the injustice of the moment. Even in fear, even in doubt, “He saw there was no man”, and he acted.
Additionally, the experience changed him on a personal level. He was no longer the same Moses but “An Egyptian Man”(Exodus 2:20), and that is what began to speak more to me as a path to personal redemption. What we can learn from the Moses of the verse is to take chances, even in the face of impossible odds, and even if they have undesirable ramifications. We just must make sure to sap those experiences for all they are worth. In that way, we are effectively building our own stories around our experiences, both the good and the bad. Is this what made Moshe a great leader? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But what it did make was a difference. Both in the world and within himself.
That is a path that I would like to try and take. We as humans live; we create stories, and maybe, should the author be G-d or the Universe, or fate, or whatever, maybe we can edit the story, even if it’s only in an effort to brighten our own. Did I affect anybody else that night? I don’t know, but I know I impacted myself. Trying made me a better person, because choosing to behave in such a way shapes your character, and inevitably your story. We all go through things, and sometimes you’re like me, and you aren’t the winner, but we just have to hope for a better story for the sake of others and ourselves. If you can’t help brighten the light of another in the world, maybe, just maybe, what changes is the lighting of your own lamp, brightening up the world as a whole. Even though some refuse to be lit, even though others shut me out, I am confident that the world is now ultimately brighter by my trying.