I ran up from the subway tracks in Penn Station, balancing an overnight bag over my shoulder and a winter coat under my arm. I checked the time, calculating the risk potential of missing my bus if I stopped for something to eat.
It was high.
But so was the risk of me snapping at someone during a busy day of catechesis if I didn’t feed my aforementioned carb addiction. So I slipped into the first dingy restaurant I saw, and morphed into the perpetual World of Lines that is bakeries in New York City.
I seethed as the bakery staff corrected my Texan pronunciation of focaccia. Wallowed in the injustice. Chewed on my lip and ignored the mostly-imagined laughs.
I shuffled forward, and waited in yet another line to pay. The man immediately in front of me was clinging to a bottle of ginger-ale as though it were his only hangover salvation. The woman behind me was several inches taller, several pounds thinner, and made me shift uncomfortably in my jeans and sweater. I wished for the day when my hair would change from its current frizzy, shapeless growing-out blob and back to its former length. I tapped the screen of my brand new iPhone, and glared at a fingernail that had chipped a bit on one side. I never have pretty nails, I whined. I quickly reviewed my notes for a first communion class and a confirmation presentation. What a regular nun you are.
Somehow, in the midst of my self-congratulating, gold-sticker-granting, materialistic fit of shallowness, I became bored enough by reading my own notes and looked up.
Looked up in time to see a woman, maybe sixty or sixty five years old, in clothes that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in a year or two. Her belongings were stacked neatly on top of each other on a cart behind her. A sleeping bag, a small collection of books, a tattered tote, and a cane. She wore sweaters in layers, but had no coat to be seen on the 25 degree January morning. She clutched a thimble-sized sample of chicken soup and took almost imperceptible sips. Her eyes were closed, and she breathed the scent in like she was holding a giant mug.
I dropped my phone into my back pocket. What is she thinking about? Does the soup remind her of someone? Of some place?
She finished and dropped the container in a trash can.
“Would you like to try another sample?” the cashier asked after glancing over her shoulder.
The woman opened her mouth, and then shook her head. “No, thank you. I’m not going to buy any today.”
Stop standing here, and buy the woman a bowl of soup.
I don’t have time to buy her soup. What if she’s offended? What if she isn’t homeless or poor?
The woman grabbed her cane, pulled her cart, and slowly left the cafe. She paused, rested a wrinkled hand on the glass by the sandwiches, and then continued walking away.
Buy. Her. A. Bowl. Of. Soup.
I looked up, moved back to the ordering line, and they called my order number. I could see her walking further and further away from the cafe, and I began to walk after her.
And then I stopped.
I stopped, and I picked up my focaccia, and I threw half of it away twenty minutes later because the tomatoes weren’t ripe and there was too much fennel. And because every bite tasted a bit more bitter than the last, like Edmund’s Turkish delight.
Maybe she really wasn’t homeless. Maybe she’s just a confused older woman who likes wearing sandles in winter. Maybe it was a scam.
But what I did was worse than not noticing.
And then I decided I didn’t care enough.
That’s worse than not seeing it at all.
It’s easy for me to love when love means donating money with a few clicks, a PayPal button and a reminder to balance my checkbook. When love means interacting with someone, respecting their dignity with the courtesy of a conversation, and setting my all-important Self and Goals aside for a minute to shut up and listen, it becomes much harder.
I can’t help every person I see. And I might get scammed along the way. But God help me if I ever ignore my conscience telling me to act again.