It all happened so quickly. One minute I was noticing you can’t buy double-A batteries without getting the help of a sales associate at a CVS in lower Manhattan — they are under lock and key, so to speak (there was some other kind of tool needed, not quite a key). I wondered, “Is this really necessary?” What a shame, if so.
A few minutes later, I was about to check out and there was a commotion behind me as someone was confronted in the process of seemingly trying to steal makeup. The person who threw the makeup down with a fierce anger appeared to be a man transitioning to a woman.
He yelled “n*****” at one of the sales associates. I noticed there was a United Nations of ethnicities all around — staff, customers, the two being run out of the place. There was so much anger and misery on display in a single moment. Maybe loneliness and desperation, too.
The cashier rolled her eyes and laughed in resignation. She said it happens all the time.
Which got me thinking about hummus. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in recent days. I don’t even eat or even encounter hummus all that much. But there have been two incidents in my life now involving hummus and men on New York City streets asking for food or money.
The first was actually inside a church. He asked for money and I, not thinking ahead not for the first or last time, didn’t have any actual cash. I did, however, have a sandwich I had picked up for after Mass. It was a vegetable and hummus wrap. I offered it to him, pointing out what it was, apologizing — “It’s Friday.”
He seemed intrigued (by the hummus, not the penance). In retrospect, a little horrified, perhaps. Some weeks later, I ran into him again. He thanked me again for the sandwich. “You know, I have to be honest. I sat and looked at it for a long time. I wasn’t sure about it. But I was hungry and I gave it a try. It was so surprisingly refreshing!”
That stuck with me. How about asking a man what he wants to eat? At one deli on 34th Street I used to frequent, there was a man who would hang around and had a usual — lots of bologna on a sub. He had a community during the day, people he checked in with and who checked in with him.
Contrast that with a man I encountered a few months ago who was standing on one of the busiest streets in Manhattan (you could get regularly run down if you slow down), just a hop, skip, and a jump from Penn Station.
He was asking for an iced coffee. In my few seconds of being alert, dozens must have passed by him, not noticing him or the quite specific request. Get the man an iced coffee, I thought, and asked him if he wanted anything else, if he wanted to go in and get himself a meal.
He told me he’d rather keep his spot outside and “they don’t like me inside.” A man with a craving for an iced coffee seems to deserve a seat. Maybe there’s more to the story, but maybe there’s not.
The other night — a cold and rainy one — I was caught completely unprepared and didn’t rise to the occasion.
On the West Side of Manhattan, Ray asked for money. I had none. I saw him look down at my ridiculous purse filled with books, and probably a wallet hanging out of it — recently a woman did that in Washington and pointed out there’s an ATM machine across the street.
But I didn’t think of that option and he didn’t press. I then remembered I had just bought a hot platter of chicken and hummus with vegetables for dinner. It wasn’t Friday this time, but since the Theodore McCarrick news broke this summer I’ve been trying to make Mondays and Wednesdays other Fridays.
This all ranks, by the way, as the very least I can do in terms of penance and reparation. As my hummus incidents remind me, I have miles to go in making my life a penitential offering to God for his love for us.
I often think of Steve. I met him on a street in Jamaica a few years ago. He wanted to sell me drugs. He immediately saw I was wearing a cross around my neck and said, “I am so sorry. You are a good Christian woman. Please pray for me. My name is Steve.”
He knew I am supposed to care — that’s at the heart of the identity of a Christian. I am loved by Love himself so I must love! Steve knew he meant more to me than a chance occurrence.
I don’t think the men I gave hummus to did. I was thinking more about where I needed to be or what I needed to do than about what they wanted or needed — or to look at them with a gaze of love rather than guilt.
That woman who told me about the ATM across the street, showed me the coat one of the priests at the church we were outside bought for her. A few minutes after we talked, I noticed she was wearing a Save The Storks scarf — one of the teens in town for the March for Life the day before had given it to her.
She wanted money for a shelter that’s $40 a night, she told me. She told me she would be able to go there and take a shower, which she really wanted to do. D.C. was getting hit by a cold spell, and she didn’t really want to be outside, she explained. No one should have to be. I made a contribution that might get her a few nights of sleep, but all the while praying that the next person would be able to help her more.
There is so much that a person needs. There was so much that she clearly needed. Eric, who is a regular there, said, as he always does: “God bless you.” I hear that a lot. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a hug.
Sometimes people warn me I’m probably just giving a person drug or booze money. I remember something Pope Francis said a while back about that not being our business. True love gives and trusts in God. Every day we are being stretched to give more love. And trust him more. Both to direct us and to love others even more than we are being stretched to.
I may never handle these situations well, but I’m pretty sure God is going to judge me with them at the top of the list. I imagine the poor man I gave the hummus platter to — complete with Israeli salad, and I’m not sure if there was a fork or not in the bag — being the one who greets me when I die, maybe driving my Uber to a long stay in purgatory.
Working out of an office in midtown Manhattan, I think I pass hundreds of people just walking a few doors down for a Snapple. And what am I doing getting a Snapple that’s going to add to the bags of garbage?
I’ve been thinking about this even more intensely since the Empire State doubled down on abortion. Pope Francis has diagnosed our throwaway society well. Most of his “Laudato Si!” (On Care for Our Common Home) was a rallying call to quit looking away and seeing the glory of God’s creation — the human person, the sky above, everything. It was an invitation we have yet to take up. That’s a dehumanizing catastrophe, making us such ungrateful people.
When I think of my hummus and iced coffee men, and so many others, I realize how many miles I have to go in living Christian difference in the world.
In his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known — it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
On the way to the March for Life, two Sisters of Life friends of mine helped meet the needs of people while getting breakfast at a drive-thru off I-95 and in the process of getting a flat tire fixed. There are always opportunities. Don’t throw them away.
We might as well be Roman soldiers wiping Christ along his Via Dolorosa as we are indifferent to the men and women we encounter on a side street or wherever it might be. It’s not just our abortion laws that are evil. We make choices every day, throughout the day, that contribute to a culture of life or death.
Choose life, always.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus, and editor-at-large of National Review Online.