The Sap’s Confession

I got panhandled, if that’s what it was, during my very last minutes in Manhattan yesterday.

I was waiting to take my four-and-half-hour bus ride home, standing outside the Hilton when a frail woman came up to me with a look of woe on her face. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it and walking beside a girl of about 14, who she said was the baby’s mother.

“We need money. We have no thing to eat all this day,” she said in heavily accented English.

“Have you come far?” I asked, putting one hand on her shoulder and one on her arm. I couldn’t help it. She just looked so lost and woeful.

“Yes,” she said, nodding sadly. “Today we have come all the way from the Bronx looking for the food.”

That stopped me for a second. The Bronx?  “But another country? You’re not from another country?” I asked, because she did have a serious accent.

“No, she said. “No other country.”

I gave her a ten because that’s the bill my hand folded around first when I felt in my pocket.

She thanked me, the three of them moved on down the sidewalk and I returned to my place in line just in time to hear the man standing next to me in a pair of soft wool slacks.  “Con artists!” he muttered, with an angry look on his face.

“Hey what can I do? It’s my church’s teaching!” I said, trying to keep it light.

 But I couldn’t just leave it at that.  “Con artists?” I asked in a tentative voice. Because to me they just seemed like three uncomfortable-looking people fighting a wind so harsh the little green sword-blades of the Hilton’s daffodils were leaning dangerously over in their boxy concrete planters.

“Gypsies.  Thieves.” he said. What had we, wandered into that old Cher song from the early 1970s? “Roma,” he added, as if that explained everything.

“Oh the ROMA! You mean the people who were shot on sight by Nazi soldiers and maybe those were the lucky ones because all the others were stripped of their citizenship, brought to concentration camps and gassed, even the old men and the pregnant women and the little children? I‘ve  heard it said that Hitler caused between 200,000 and 800,000 Roma to be killed in the name of the ‘racial purity’ he saw as being so central to his plan for world domination.”

But I didn’t say any of that really.

I just said “What does that MEAN though? Where are the Roma FROM? I mean is it a country or just a region in Europe?’”

“Romania. Parts of Bulgaria. Other places,” he said. “They’re gypsies,” he said again. “Con artists,” he repeated.  “And you are the worse sort of sap,” he all but added.

 “You’re lucky you didn’t just get your pocket picked” he said. But how that frail woman was going to pick my pocket when I had one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm I don’t know. Her 14-year-old stood dejectedly on the other side of the stroller with her hands down at her sides the whole time and the baby – well the baby was a baby.

Then the man looked at me full in the face for the first time. “What church do you belong to?” he asked, going back a couple of sentences.

“Oh I’m just a Congregationalist. Just the United Church of Christ,” I said.

“Ah the Congregational Church, that rock-ribbed New England institution!” he said.

“Yup,” I said, leaving out about six other things I could have told him about all the ways we’re about as far from ‘rock-ribbed’ as a denomination can be. I love my church. Love, love, love it for all the ways it has helped me to join any day’s ‘party’ with an open heart, leaving all judgment and suspiciousness at the door.  But that’s not the church I meant, really.  

I think the church I really meant is the one I ‘joined’ the very first time I read Walt Whitman’s first Preface to The Leaves of Grass, which he wrote in 1855 and which I read the winter I turned 19: 

“This is what you shall do,” it goes. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, AND YOUR VERY FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM AND HAVE THE RICHEST FLUENCY, NOT ONLY IN WORDS BUT IN THE SILENT LINES OF ITS LIPS AND FACE AND BETWEEN THE LASHES OF YOUR EYES AND IN EVERY LAST JOINT AND MOTION OF YOUR BODY.” 

The caps here are my doing but you tell me, all you have ever waited for a bus in a stinging wind in a city of many strangers: Are these ideas not every bit as moving and revolutionary as those expressed in the Sermon on the Mount?  To me they are.

Anyway the bus came eventually and I found a great seat for myself in Row Four just in front of the man with the beautiful pants. I put all my stuff down, then on an impulse as sudden as it was sure, picked it all up again, went to the back of the bus and rode my four and a half hours home from there.  

 

 

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One thought on “The Sap’s Confession

  1. The kindness and humanity you showed these poor street people probably made their day..my heart goes out to the teen girl especially..thanks Terry..

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