Now and again you’ll come across a strange night where you learn about yourself and, if you take action, those nights change your life’s entire trajectory .
Tonight was one of those nights for me and I think I’ve placed a stake in the ground in a way that ten years from now will illuminate something of a profound change in my life. But to explain that, I have to explain the title of this article…
The older I grow, the more I see two Americas all around me, all of the time.
One the one side, I see an America that relishes its comfort, that worships its air conditioners and ready-made meals, that orders a car from its phone and cars a phone to deliver an order and phones in an order from the comfort of its car. This America fears for its own survival and so comes to a land flowing with milk and honey fully expecting to kill anyone in its way in order to leave its hand just a little longer in the cookie jar. This is the America of Manifest Destiny, most of redlining suburbia, and, of course, much of the system of Wall Street. I won’t say “Wall Street” because I know a couple of brokers who fall into the second America, but they are exceptions that prove the rule. This is the America Martin Luther King referred to when he said that the biggest threat to justice was not white supremacy, but white apathy, white comfort — it is Hilly, not her husband, who makes life a living hell for The Help. For this very reason, I hate New York gala culture. A gala is an event attended by the architects of a particular system of oppression, an event where they give charity from out of the profits of said oppression towards minor efforts to combat said oppression in order to justify, rather than absolve, their guilty consciences.
Examples would be: a poverty relief gala sponsored by Visa, a sex trafficking gala attended by Victoria’s Secret executives, a poetry gala attended by the heads of creative at New York ad companies, or a drug relief gala hosted by big pharma. The man of comfort ignores how he justifies his guilt for the victims of war by buying sacrifices using the treasure he plundered from these victims, that he silences the plight of the widows and orphans he created using golden trumpets he forged from his war chest. Because both the booty and their cries would be too uncomfortable. He can only stand one or the other. He chooses the trumpet.
On the other side of the gulf dividing these two americas, I see another America that chooses to hear the cries.
This America knows it is poverty that a child may die so that I may live as I please. This America knows if it owns two coats, one of them belongs to the poor man on the street who is literally freezing to death, slowly, as the February nights grow colder. This America knows no bad myth of the “noble savage,” because it knows no savage — rather than practice survival of the fittest, it responds to every human as they are: a man like me. A woman like my wife. A child like my child. This America knows every Fortune 500 company would not exist without the roads all of us built, without the fire departments all of us employ, without people who were here long before you and people who will take over long after you die — whether Native American or Millennial.
There is the comfortable America that is little more than an open mouth — complaining and consuming.
And there is the humble America that is at least an open hand — silent and sure.
I use the word “sure” quite intentionally: the word comes from the Latin securus meaning “free from care.” Security. Many politicians and talking heads have used “security” to cover a multitude of sins and the word covers them poorly, leaving most naked in further insecurity and desperation. Fear-mongering is what some like Noam Chomsky call it: that during Bush’s entire tenure, the “terrorist level” never went any higher or any lower than orange. A flatline of fear.
I find that the people who use the word “security” the most are the most insecure people I know — they look for bombs underneath the coats of every person of color they meet and they worry about their houses burning down and they dread the appearance of skin spots. Few sci fi films have illustrated the insecurity of security states better than Elysium — the way the people flee when the poor arrive.
That is not the security I mean. I mean something more akin to sureness — an ability to move forward in spite of fear, a willingness to pledge surety not by cosigning a loan but by simply giving the money to a stranger in need, and, of course, of the more-than-knowing sureness — the more-than-knowing act — that some call “faith.” Courage: to move forward in spite of the obvious fears. I would beg this kind of courage from many who throw around the word “wisdom.” I know people who, for instance, use the book of Solomon’s Proverbs to appeal to some capital-W “wisdom” that’s really little more than fear — they mean, simply, to quote the proverbs in order to justify their apathy for the poor and their obsession with the comfort that keeps them from taking direct action. They say “wisdom” when they really mean “I’m scared.” In reality, the wisest men I know make some of the most daring, calculated risks I have seen: they have faced down firearms and been beaten with rods, they’ve moved from the suburbs into the inner city or sold everything and moved to North Sudan and the Pashtun region of Afghanistan (and not for military intervention). “Wisdom,” it seems, can be a clever disguise for fear. Real wisdom is proved right by her children — those who make the right call, every time.
That’s the preamble, but here’s the story of Two Americas:
Last night, I saw the man of comfort and the man of courage in myself, both in their infancy, both terrible to behold.
The man of comfort got out of the subway at Court Street and made his way with his wife to the stairwell. He was preoccupied with his own worries, his own income, his own climb to the top, his own ambitions and envies. His wife, on the other hand, saw the poor man jangling change at the bottom of the stairwell. The man of comfort had walked clean past the guy, his wife dug around for some change and the man of comfort patted himself on the back — they had spared a beggar with their spare change. Wasn’t he a good soul? Fighting back the tide of poverty. Oh yes, he was not so bad after all. He had thought he was bad, a terrible, terrible person, but now he saw that he was a saint, on his way to godhood. The man of comfort oscillates between the two, you see: self-loathing and self-worship. They mean it when they say, “the world revolves around you.” I saw the first me that evening. The man of comfort. At his best, he tosses some change to the poor. At his worst, he stands by while the Hitlers of the world come to power, complaining even while he takes his food and firewood from the hands of the fascists. Open mouthed, hard heart — obsessed with merely satisfying the aches of guilt and non-goldilocks temperatures and the impulse we’ve come to call “hunger” but is nothing of the sort — very few of you reading this have ever known hunger. This man is the comfortable consumer.
The man of courage took time to emerge. He had to fight past the veneer of the man of comfort and be prompted by outside sources. He had to watch his wife’s heart break in front of him and realize the pettiness of his own selfish thoughts. It took a second beggar, this one taller, younger, to wake him up. Mind you, the story I am about to tell you is not the man of courage on his best night. It’s the man of courage on his worst night. That’s the thing about the man of comfort and the man of courage — the comfortable man will find, on his best days, he still thinks only of himself. On his worst day, the man of courage will have still bled for another. Keep that in mind: I don’t consider myself the hero of this story, but the villain. We are all of us, daily, fighting to kill off our inner Hitler, our inner Wall Street, our inner gossip magazine. Until we kill it off within, we will never kill it off without…
The beggar came up to us, yellow-chipped rain coat, hoodie that had been worn through with holes as if a swarm of locusts had run out of corn here in the city and taken to eating the boy. “Please, you guys, please. Can you buy me some food? I haven’t eaten in three days. Please.”
Tara didn’t hesitate. She never hesitates. This is why we marry up, folks. We don’t marry because it’ll make us happy — that’s what the man of comfort does. The man of comfort marries for sex or for trophy brides or for dowries or politics. The man of courage marries because he has found a woman of valor, a woman of virtue, who will push him every day to become a better man. Marriage doesn’t make us happy. Marriage makes us holy and holiness makes us happy. That’s a weird word for some of you because holiness = hypocrisy. I get it. Sub the word with “doing the good I ought to do” or “making the right call” or “integrity.” Marriage helps shape us into whole people and being a whole person makes us happy. Not that you can’t be whole without marriage — other ways exist, but this is one of them. “Sure,” Tara said.
And the man of comfort within me thought, “Really? Two in one night? Okay, here we go.”
I immediately looked around to the signs and saw the McDonald’s flag and thought, “Nah, you wouldn’t eat there. Don’t give the guy something you wouldn’t want.” That was the first time the man of courage spoke up. The man of comfort said, “Yes, but you can use your card at McDonald’s for sure. It’d be easiest.”
We asked him, “What would you like to eat?”
“Oh anything. There’s a pizza joint up here, that’s fine.”
“Oh wow. Oh thank you guys so much. I’m so sorry for bothering you, I know it’s weird people asking for food and stuff, it’s hard, you just sit out here all day long and people walk by and ignore you. You guys have no idea how grateful I am — I mean, I’m a stranger, you know?”
“It’s okay man,” I said. That was the man of comfort talking — gratitude on this level made him uncomfortable. It made him uncomfortable because he realized someone desperately needed five dollars that he considered disposable income. As in trash. Kind of like the coins in the bottom of his wife’s purse that made it into the broken Starbucks cup the old guy, bowed double, down in the subway had begged us to proffer.
The man of courage within me began mustering his strength…
We walk in the pizza joint and Tara asks him his name. Because she’s a champ who knows how to inject dignity into any situation. We’ll call him “Jack.”
Jack said, “Aged out of the foster care system about five months ago. Turned eighteen and hit puberty all at the same time.” He pointed to the long, but patched facial hair. “People don’t believe me. They think I’m twenty-five. But I’ve been trying to get eight dollars so that I can get an I.D. Covenant House has a bed for me already. They’re gonna help me go to college. They’re gonna get me a shower, I just need my I.D., but I can’t get eight bucks.”
Tara reached into her purse. “I have exactly eight dollars.” She handed it to him.
“Really?” he said. “REALLY?”
“Yeah, of course,” she said.
“It’s okay,” said the man of comfort, but then the man of courage spoke up and said, “They don’t take cards. Let’s get some cash and get you some food.”
We four walked to a big-box pharmacy a block away, Tara, Jack, and the two men warring inside me.
“ATM?” I asked.
The lady pointed but did not look up from her copy of People, flipping the pages between one rich woman’s broken life and another’s.
When I went to withdraw the cash, the man of comfort told me both that we were supposed to be buying groceries tonight, so I should hurry this along and that I should withdraw the bare minimum. The man of courage asked a simple question: “If your fortunes were reversed with Jack’s, what dollar amount would both take care of your needs and make you feel loved?”
I withdrew the amount the man of courage had suggested. It was the most amount of money I have ever considered giving to an individual homeless man and I had considered just that amount only a few months prior when we found it laying on the subway floor in twenties. A beggar watched as I picked up the money that time and I realized that he had noticed it but hadn’t moved as fast as me. The man of comfort at that time thought, “Give him one of the twenties. That’s plenty for him.” I did and he thanked me, but there was envy in his eyes as he looked at the stack of twenties in my other hand, the ones I had found on the platform floor. That same amount I’d kept from that beggar came to me again last night at the ATM — the man of comfort cried out that I needed it, that we were going through a transition. The man of courage hit the button anyways.
We went back to the pizza joint, he ordered a margarita and a cheese slice and he said, “Thanks.”
And the man of comfort wanted to leave, but the man of courage stayed at least silent and still.
Tara said, “Let’s go sit down.”
Wise woman, that.
He sat and started eating and said, “Thank you guys so much. That eight bucks will get me my I.D. and this food… I haven’t eaten in three days.”
I slid the money across the table. “Take that, okay?”
“Dude. Duuuude. No way man,” he said, “There is like x-dollars! I can’t… are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course I’m sure.”
“I… this is like actually helping me. Like capital letters HELP. Man guys. You guys… you’re treating me like family. You’re treating me — you don’t even know who I am. What if I was lying to you?”
“So?” I said. The man of comfort thought he has a point — he’s probably just a bum who’s going to use it for drugs. But the man of courage thought and if he’s lying, he is still hungry, he is still going to freeze tonight, he still has no place to lie his head.
“Some people,” Jack said, “they come across you and they say they won’t give me money because I’m gonna use it for drugs. That hurts when people say that. They don’t know me. They don’t know who I am or where I’ve been.”
“Where have you been?” Tara asked. “What’s your story?”
“Oh shit,” he said. He took a bite. “Well I aged out of foster care like I said, aged out recently and I’ve been on the streets for the last five months. I want to go to college but I can’t right now, but I want to. They’re saving a bed for me, like I said, they’ll help. But… man I can’t believe you guys.”
“How’d you get into foster care?” I asked.
“I wasn’t a toddler or anything. Grew up in an upper-middle class home. Dad left and I remember how spoiled I was. I was a brat. I’d lay in bed in the mornings and refuse to get up until my mom brought me a fresh cup of hot chocolate, all the way upstairs. Then I’d get up. I can’t imagine hot chocolate now — not only the heat, but I don’t own a toothbrush. Can’t do sweets. But yeah, I did that and one day my mom slipped and fell coming upstairs and broke her back. They gave her this really strong stuff, basically heroin. This oxy…”
“Codone,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Gave her that stuff and she started out okay on that pain medicine, but it got bad really fast. She took advantage of my tourrettes. I have tourrettes, you see? You probably noticed me twitching.”
When talking to Tara, his eyes would flick to me and back to her. When talking to me, he’d flick over to Tara and back. His muscles contracted in his face occasionally, like strong flinching.
“Well most medicines, most people with tourrettes are allergic to most medicines. They make our bodies contract. Like one time my neck contracted so bad that the back of my head touched my back and my spine started cutting off my air. The muscles twitched and gratefully I could go to the left and could breath, but it was bad. Even a whiff of marijuana will do this — someone smoking pot on the street. That’s why they couldn’t give me most stuff: oxycodone and Xanax was it. And I didn’t take it that much because I was scared, but I took it now and again and it didn’t really help, just made my world grey. Went to take them once and like thirty pills were missing. Mom denied doing anything, but I knew she was sniffing them. I asked her, ‘Mom, did you take these?’ She said, ‘I don’t know where they went. Don’t know.’ Well I caught her sniffing up a bunch of it on the coffee table a few days later. She told me she needed it, that she felt like killing herself without it. Guy she was dating at the time — Victor — he was an en… what do you call it when someone makes it worse?”
“Enabler,” Tara said.
“That’s it. He was an enabler. He kept buying stuff for her and it got worse and worse and eventually that guy left. That nice two-story house started looking like hoarder’s house, roaches crawling everywhere, I didn’t spend much time there — hung out with friends. Mom would ask me to go looking for drugs for her, so I’m thirteen, don’t want and can’t take drugs cause of tourrettes, asking people if they know how to get ahold of oxycodone. For my mom. She’d pull out her hair shouting at me about these drugs — they change people, you know. Full clumps of her hair, begging me for drugs. Basically heroin, like I said.”
The pizza had grown cold. He asked the guy to warm it up.
“One night, she tells me to leave until about nine o’clock and I asked her what she was going to do and she said don’t worry about it, go play with your friends. Well I stayed around as long as I could but she started nagging and it got so bad that I left. And I came home right at nine worried and the door was locked. Couldn’t get in anywhere. So I thought if I could find a bit of plastic I could get in. I found a plastic fork and filed the edge down on the sidewalk and popped the lock on my own house and it was creepy quiet all over. I looked and didn’t find her in her room or the living room or my room or the bathroom. I found her on the kitchen, dead. Called the cops and stuff and foster care got involved, of course, and shipped me off.
“I went into a house of a woman that, believe it or not, was worse than my mom. At least my mom still loved me in some way. This lady collected kids. She would empty the house of everyone but her autistic husband and biological kid and they’d answer the door and get a new kid in this tiny apartment and she’d come back with the rest of them. She collected money off of all of these kids — thousands of dollars a month off the infants and only like a hundred or two from me. I was the oldest one there. We were starving — just mountains of shrimp-flavored Ramen in the cabinet and this giant hypocrisy in the living room. One of those blue water jugs like in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office, full of change and tens and ones and fives. Sometimes I would ask the autistic husband if he wanted to play Call of Duty or whatever and he would go in and play video games with me while Tommy siphoned a ten out of the jar. He’d take his half for weed and I’d use mine to buy food for the rest of the kids in the house.
“We’d do these quarterly or yearly assessments with my social worker and this woman. And I mentioned in passing at one when I was seventeen that I wanted to go to college and would like to get out from under this woman. Now I meant that I wanted to go to college, but this lady saw dollar signs. This lady knew she could get twenty-five-hundred a month for a two-year-old and I was only pulling fifty bucks in, so she said, ‘Well you heard it, he doesn’t want to live with me anymore, so let him go to college.’ And she said she wanted me out and the foster care worker was broken — you could see it on his face. He knew he couldn’t do anything.
“Few months later, I was on the street. Been homeless for five months now. Hit puberty on the street late, I guess you’d say. I’m eighteen now. Grow all this facial hair. Only one other person sat and heard my story other than you guys. You guys actually care. You’re like family. I mean people try to help but most of them just shout at me and say that I want the money for drugs — me, a dude with tourrettes that goes crippled at the first whiff of marijuana. Me, a dude who had to find his mom dead from a drug overdose. Me, who was in foster care because of his family’s drug abuse. That I want the money for drugs. It hurts. They don’t know me, you know?”
“Oh I know,” I said. “That’s unfair.”
“Yeah,” he said. “And the CVS guy just the other day. This lady was going to give me that eight dollars for the I.D. and the CVS manager pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you know what soliciting is?’ And the lady got scared and left and the guy threatened to call the cops. Because I was trying not to starve, asking this lady for food.”
“Poverty’s not a crime,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“I said it’s not a crime to be poor.”
“Yeah. Yeah. But you guys have helped me. Like all capitals HELPED me, you know? Nobody does this.”
Tara said, “You know the info for the I.D.? I can look it up.”
“I know I need four points,” Jack said.
Tara looked up the info. We all wrote it down and came up with a plan and today, he went early to the DMV to get his license that he might have a bed, a bed that he might let legitimate meals start to build up his strength, his strength that he might consider college, college that he might build a business and a life from these ashes.
Took about an hour of time and some disposable income strategically given. It’ll take some follow-up and a place like Covenant House, but that’s it. It’s really not much on the grand scale of my life. A few inconveniences, really.
Chesterton famously said in his On Chasing After One’s Hat:
“An inconvenience, rightly considered, is an adventure. An adventure, wrongly considered, is an inconvenience.”
Tonight, I held my wife on a subway platform as she wept and wept and wept. “We didn’t do enough,” she said. “We can’t pat ourselves on the back for this. We could have done more. It’s still three days that he’s out on the street freezing.” And she cried. I couldn’t wipe the tears off fast enough.
You know what the man of comfort said? “No, sweetheart, no. We did good. We gave him a real path forward. We gave him a chance to get his I.D. and made sure he won’t freeze. We did good enough. We did what we could.”
She wouldn’t have it. The word “inconsolable” literally means “unable to be soothed.” No balm I could offer, no words would calm her down, could heal the wound in her heart from the story we’d heard. She had a panic attack in the midst of her weeping. “I want to take all of the kids. I want all of them safe in my arms.”
And the man of courage finally piped up, “I know. Me too. I think if anything, this night convinced me you’re right about fostering. I need to look up Covenant House.”
Tonight, I saw two Americas in myself: the man of comfort and the man of courage.
The man of comfort was caught on his best night, patting himself on the back for the first beggar. The man of courage was caught on his worst night: in anguish like Schindler because he can, he should, he must do more than some food and some clothes. Saint James said, “If your fellow man is without clothes and daily food and one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” People in America believe a lot of things. They adhere to one philosophy or another, try to argue points, try to persuade. And then, in their comfort, they do nothing. In reality, the only things you believe are the things you’ve done. I’ve had people argue to me recently, for instance, that voting is important and these people have never registered anyone to vote. I have hundreds of illustrations of people tried to prove their beliefs and opinions without deeds.
All of us, all the time, show our deepest shades by what we do. The man of comfort does nothing but talk and open his mouth for more comfort food. The man of courage is always at the ready — he packs light, he keeps the cotton in his flint and steel dry, he seeks the source of the problem rather than its symptoms. Lean, able to live on very little, he is already rich and therefore able to give much more than many men of comfort combined.
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
— Hélder Pessoa Câmara
The man of comfort wants to be called a saint for the bare-minimum requirement and fears being called a communist.
The man of courage seeks to unearth injustice at its roots, to damn up pollution at the fountainhead, not downstream.
That’s why either way, I’m not the hero of this story. I’m either the wolf in sheepskin or the obese, undisciplined knight. The goal? To reinstate discipline in such a way that I can act, unflinchingly, the next time this happens and actually bring about some serious change. And by “next time this happens” I don’t mean what I meant as the man of comfort who would simply wait for one of these fellow men to cross his path. I mean, as a man of courage, to seek these situations out, actively, and to insert myself into their station that I might help bear burdens.
The man (or woman) of comfort within you is writhing having read this. Good. Perhaps courage will rise up in you at long last.
Mother Theresa commissioned us to find our Calcutta.
God willing, I may have found mine.
Go find yours.
cover image by Le Rétroviseur