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A subway ride, a homeless woman, and a moment of truth.

I saw her when I entered the subway car, the homeless woman and her rickety laundry cart.  There was a natural perimeter of space around her.  I sat a few rows away.

“Lemme hear you, fellas!”  Three older men came in, warming up their voices.  When you ride the subway for a while, you recognize when an “act” steps into the car, with their preliminary wisecracks and darting eyes.  They began singing a gospel song, nicely arranged, and began walking the car.

But as they made their way through, I heard “Thank you, ma’am,”  and I looked up to see that the homeless woman had given them money.

Singing and walking as they were, the singing men did not notice who it was at first, but then the leader looked up and realized what happened, doubled back and, still singing, placed the dollar back in her hand.  Without breaking stride, they kept singing but again the lead singer doubled back, fished a bill out of his pocket, and handed it gently to her.   They moved on, all three of them, rolling waves of gospel around them until the subway doors closed out their voices.

I could not see her face but I saw her hands carefully fold the two bills into a Kiwi shoe polish can.

I began shuffling through my purse, looking for money or food.  I am wont to give things away from my lunchbox — a tangerine, Goldfish crackers, even one time, a Power drink.  I know it will go toward something, I know it will nourish. But today i didn’t even have change, just credit cards, lipstick, and a Blackberry.  In a storybook, the noble hero befriends the humble.  If this were a fairy tale, I would close the empty space between us; I would give what a lonely homeless person might want most:  the time of day, an acknowledgement, a kind word.

But in ordinary life we ourselves are ordinary, cocooned in inaction to protect ourselves from sharp words and sharp edges.  In reality, without meaning to, we miss chances to make a difference.  Today, the reality was a homeless woman gave a roaming subway act money, and they gave it right back, and then some.  What is my act? I asked myself.

I went and sat across from her, pretending to look at the subway map.  The rickety laundry cart, though worn, was neatly tied with string. Through her several layers of clothes,  she had faded purple high tops with pink laces:  some style.  And her hair was smoothed back behind a worn bandana as her eyes darted while reading a crumpled paper.  Her lips moved silently, as though uttering a prayer.  I smiled tentatively at her.  She looked up and smiled wide at me.

Her face, though not too wrinkled, had the thin, paper skin of the very old, and her eyes looked steadily at me, cloudy but unafraid.  She had high cheekbones, and she held her head up proudly.  She struck me in that moment as beautiful.

“Beauty is truth,” said a voice in my head.

They had predicted a snowstorm later, with the temperatures dropping to freezing.  The rickety cart would not get through the snow, the three sweaters and the purple high tops were not enough for the cold.  But that did not bother her right now.  She sat, happy, even though I was afraid.

My subway stop was here, the doors opened, I would not know what would happen.  I stood up, and walked across, and pressed something into her hands.

“It is going to snow soon,” I told her.  “You are going to need gloves.”   And I left her my leather gloves whose frayed fur edges had made me think of donating them to the Salvation Army.  In their time they too had been things of beauty.

The doors closed behind me, and a young man came running, saying, “That was a nice thing you did.”

“Pay it forward,” I told him simply.  “Or find those nice singing gospel men.”

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

–John Keats