Wednesday, October 04, 2006
KINDNESS LESSON $11.50
Trevor slid triumphantly across the aged, red leather bench seat, happy with his selection. Always the front of the car, always with an empty seat across, always facing forward; I cannot travel backward. I eased myself isle-side next to him and placed our bags in the corner of the seat across, securing leg room for the moment at least. The hustle bustle of the day eased off of my shoulders and a sense of satisfaction for an accomplishment tucked itself under my belt. The trip in and out of Manhattan is itself an adventure in bravery. My nucleus in recent years had shrunken to a five mile radius of my Connecticut shoreline home and trips to the city reminded me that street-wise I am not. I always made these trips with the comfort a stronger, sure-footed city soul. This time, I am the leader.
An elderly woman smiled as she passed, looking at Trevor twist and wiggle to get the right view out the window. The sounds of the train’s passengers rustling and adjusting were warm music to my ears. I made it. Engines hissed and brakes squeaked on nearby trains. The smell of newspaper and workday all around. I snuggle close to Trevor and smile at how he has placed a grown-up face over his little boy face. His corn silk blonde strands were still slicked back making him look like a mini-businessman. Trevor and his brother had taken an interest in acting and attended an open cast call for a movie the previous summer. The final screening was in Manhattan and the call back for that day started a ball rolling I had never expected. Although they did not get the part, they were bitten by the bug and wanted more. We had made several trips into the city for “go sees”; quite simply, a look over from a prospective employer- a job interview of sorts. The trips were exciting: coordinating train schedules, hailing taxis, scouting out eateries and finding our way home again. This trip was especially thrilling as it was Trevor’s first big job.
Excitement was in the air from the 5:30am wake up to the slipping out in the cold and dark by 6:30, bags packed and pulses racing. It was one of those days just meant to be.
The photo shoot was for the Wall Street Journal; a large color photo on the cover of the weekend edition planting Trevor’s six-year-old Cheshire-Cat grin in homes all across the country. Can You Spot the Fake? was the title addressing the growing trend of designer knock-offs and the vast cost difference between the “fake” and the “real deal.” The studio was big and sophisticated and the staff on hand skilled and professional. Wardrobe people fussed and make-up and hair stylists pranced and primped until everything was perfect. Trevor took his place on the white covered floor with his new “fake “ family. They resembled mannequins. Barbie-Mom and Ken-Dad and a perky round faced older sister draped in Gucci belts, Armani glasses and Tommy Hilfiger jeans. I wondered if it was obvious that I would not have recognized a Louis Vuitton bag from a Wal-Mart special, much less the knock-off from the authentic apparel.
The other models were experienced and smooth and I watched anxiously as the bald little hair-stylist jumped out of his clogs and hopped sock-foot onto the white paper. I suppressed a giggle as he extracted a can of hairspray and a comb from his holster with the speed and skill of Clint Eastwood and postured a duel with a loose hair on my firmly slicked-back six-year-old. Funny, him being bald. I avoided eye contact with Trevor in order to mask my amusement and watched as they worked Trevor into the scene. He rose to the occasion, engaging his new family with humor and style as if he’d been born into the business. “Turn to the left a little, chin down, eyes here, smile…..Good!” Music played between film changes and Trevor threw out a few dance moves, and then froze just in time for the camera, as if he knew the drill. The group begins to meld. Jokes fly, camera snaps, nervous leaves me and pride rises in my chest. The feeling in the air was light and positive.
We wrapped up by 2:30, an hour earlier than expected, and said good-bye to the family we would likely never see again. I hailed a taxi with relative ease and we emerged unscathed at Grand Central Station with enough time to grab a sandwich and a train destined to arrive home well before the dinner hour. I was barely aware of my surroundings on the train as I nestled close to Trevor, unwrapped his sandwich in his lap and took notice of just how hungry I had become. Life felt very good and this day was a gift.
Lost in lunch, I only slightly noticed the man who boarded the train and stood at the front of the car inches away from me. I felt him before I saw him. Nervous. Seeking. I glanced up and saw him turn as if to leave, step back into the train and run his fingers anxiously over the top of his short brown hair. He inhaled as if about to speak, held for a moment and sighed. Then he spoke. “Is anyone going all the way to New Haven?” he asked with a sense of urgency. For a moment, I suspected that he worked for the railroad and was going to tell us about a problem with the train. I glanced around and behind and noticed more than half of the passengers indicated they were indeed New Haven bound. Hands up, eyes down.
He rocked from foot to foot and then spoke as if it pained and embarrassed him to do so. “I was mugged in the city today,” his eyes squeezed tight, his mouth spread into a tight straight line as he drew the courage to continue. “This is the second time that I have been mugged and I need some help. They took my cell phone and my wallet so I have no ID, no credit cards and no money. I made a police report and there’s not much they can do,” His eyes raised up like he was looking for inspiration. “The train station says they can’t do anything because it didn’t happen in their jurisdiction. I don’t want to be stranded here in New York City. Can somebody please give me an extra ticket or the train fare home?” He stood there looking desperate for what seemed to be the longest moment as I tried to remain focused on my lunch. Trevor looked at me ready to question and my lips formed a silent shhh.. My eyes cautiously perused the passengers around me. Computers open, eyes down. Books open, eyes down. Newspapers up, eyes down. The nervous man paced. I noticed that he was neatly dressed in kakis and a collared shirt. He was average. Average height. Average clothes. The sort of person that would not catch your eye was it not for his obvious distress.
The man across the isle kept his face buried in his newspaper; unmoved and unwilling. Across from him a gray haired businessman shifted in his seat. His charcoal tailored suit said successful, his white shirt still crisp after the toils of the day. His black leather briefcase rested beside him, the finishing touch of a man in the know. The deep smile lines on his face showed a different kind of knowing. The silence got louder. The sound of hissing engines and squealing brakes almost deafening.
“Look, I work for AT&T… I make $70,000 a year. I can pay you back when we get back to New Haven or I can mail you a check.” He shook his head and snickered pathetically through his nose. “They’re really good these guys,” he looked down at the floor, “I had my pocket buttoned.” His hands raised palms up to the crowd. “ Folks, I’ve never asked for anything before in my life and I’m just asking for help to get home.” The newspaper man inched his paper higher.
The consensus of the train seemed clear and I felt gripped by their collective distance; affirmed in my non-response. We were united in the silence. I found it ironic that I was again uncertain. After watching real and fake swirl and blend with skillful actors all day, I remained unable to differentiate. My father’s words rang loudly in my head. Policeman’s words. We don’t talk to strangers. He faced the criminal world daily and I know what he would tell me if he sat across in the charcoal gray suit. But I was the leader now. The kind businessman broke the silence and said he didn’t have any cash, but that if they would take a credit card he would gladly buy him a ticket. Of course they do not take credit cards. Perhaps he sensed a scam, but his smile lines told me he was sincere. I wished that someone would volunteer so that I would not have to be involved.
He stood a moment longer nervously pacing, glancing at his watch and running his fingers through his hair. “I tried to call my folks but I can’t reach them. The only thing I have left to do is sell my jewelry,” he said running his hands sadly over his gold watch, “Please…”
My lunch stuck in my throat as he turned his back to us, banged the palm of his hand against the wall and dropped his head muttering frustrated words. I stole a peripheral glance backward. Guards up, eyes down. I made eye contact with the kind businessman and knew he could read my question without words. I whispered, “Do you think he’s legit?” He answered that whether he was or was not, he would give him the money if he had cash, it was only ten bucks. The decent side of me argued with the practical side of me when my thoughts were interrupted by a tug on my sweater.
“Mom! Do something! Give him a ticket or some money. We have to help him!” Eyes up, thoughts spoken.
I thought of the pile of bills on my kitchen counter that I lacked the money to pay and knew I had no business giving money away. “Mom….?” I looked into the big blue six-year-old eyes staring up at me brimming with compassion, and my own began to sting the familiar dread of tears.
I reached into my wallet. Fare to New Haven was $11.50. I pulled out eleven dollars and handed the money to Trevor. Before I could pull out the 50 cents, Trevor hopped out of his seat, sandwich rolling to the floor and tapped the man on the arm, proudly holding out the money. Looking almost embarrassed at the generosity of a little boy, he took the money and walked over to me, head down, eyes down to thank me. “If you give me your address, I’ll send you a check.” I handed him my husband’s business card which he pretended to glance at and he moved for a swift exit. “Just a minute,” I added and held out the change, “the fare is $11.50.”
He looked aggravated and as he held his hand in my direction. I dropped the quarters into his open palm and his eyes met mine expressionless. Then he was gone. The man embedded in his newspaper spoke over the top to the kind businessman. “She’ll never see that money.” The smile lines looked over at me and said, “You did a good thing. I hope I didn’t steer you wrong.” I looked down at Trevor, whose Cheshire-Cat smile had melted into a smile of satisfied good will.
I realized that I could have taught him about the evils of the world and the people who take advantage of kindness; how to guard against strangers and unjust scams. I could have given him a lesson in cynicism for free, inching me eleven dollars and fifty cents closer to paying a bill. Life will teach him that lesson soon enough. Handed to me that day full of thrills and excitement was an opportunity. The opportunity to teach my son to act on that untainted compassion that doesn’t need reason. It was worth much more than eleven fifty.
That evening at the dinner table, we shared our stories of the day: the studio, the photographer, the models and the fun we had in the city. I braced myself as I shared the story of the train. I was prepared to refute the impending lecture about being naive and getting ripped off and I watched my husband’s face as his mind processed the story, no doubt calculating the many ways I could have handled the situation differently. His eyes peered over the top of his glasses as looked at me, one eyebrow inching upward. As I restated the man’s desperate plea and our response, Trevor interrupted. “Mom, you forgot something. He said he never asked for anything before in his life!”
My husbandlooked into Trevor’s eyes and saw that a wrong had been righted. It really was not relevant whether the man was honest or a thief. Life is not about being able to spot the fakes, but about being open to spot the opportunities. One day, a kind hand will reach out to Trevor in need and this moment will come flying back. I never did see that money, but I know I was not ripped off. Instead, I was blessed with a child whose kind spirit could make the world a better place for $11.50. Perhaps if we all wore six-year-old glasses, the world would be all right.