I smelled Leo before I actually saw him. Urine, shit, sweat and decay; the now familiar vaporous cocktail of a New York City street resident in the summer heat that has become a regular part of my everyday life since moving here from California 5 months ago.
He stood motionless on the 4th step from the bottom of the subway stairs, clutching the handrail with one hand, a pair of crutches on the step above him in the other. Clearly he was stuck there, frozen in place by something unseen while the world busily streamed past him, subway passengers rushing to get to whatever was next. The next train, the next appointment, the next big deal. Rushing, pushing, clawing, leaning into the next more-important-than-the-last thing that takes us further from each other and closer to ourselves. I held my breath and prepared to descend the steps quickly past him into the hot platform like everyone else. I knew already that I wouldn’t exhale until I was in the air-conditioned subway car, safe from the smell.
Each one of us probably believes that we possess our own fair amount of altruism, that if someone were obviously in need, we would do whatever was necessary to help. At least I know I do. Despite this, I wouldn’t have stopped to help Leo that day if we hadn’t made eye contact.
It wasn’t much. I happened to be looking down the stairs focused on my destination, and he was looking up those same stairs, toward freedom. Our gaze met in the middle of this ordinary place and in his eyes I saw his extraordinary pain. This rooted me to the spot, and I couldn’t just move on past him. I noticed that he kept trying to lift his foot up onto the next step with great effort and was getting nowhere. He would raise the foot an inch off the ground, and slowly lower it back down, wincing and moaning each time he did.
“Need help?” I asked.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, with an exasperated sigh. “I just don’t know how we are going to do it.”
And just like that, “we” were a team.
And so we began our work, slowly at first, so that I could gauge how far I could push him and how stuck we actually were on those stairs. I took the crutches and lifted them onto the next step and held on while Leo pulled himself up with them. We didn’t say much, I just kept offering him encouragement before each step, and reminding him to take his time. At one point, after we had gone up 2 steps, he looked at me with defeat and I had a flash of recognition.
About 6 years ago, with very limited hiking experience at the time, I set out to hike to the top of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Through a series of unfortunate events, at about 1,000 feet from the 14,500-foot peak, exhaustion, an injured knee, and a mild case of altitude sickness stopped me cold. The altitude sickness confused me, making me believe I was going to fall off the mountain, and this was obviously terrifying. I remember the moment I gave up; when I knew I was beat. I began to cry and told my sister and my friend who were with me that I couldn’t go on. I limped behind a rock on the narrow trail and prayed for God to show me what to do, when I knew that I was really asking for permission to give up. And I will never forget what happened next. A couple came by who saw me struggling and they offered me food and water and aspirin, all of which I desperately needed. My sister and my friend came over and they said they wouldn’t leave me, and would hold my hand all the way up to the top, that we would do it together no matter what. And I will never forget that based on this particular series of human kindnesses and connections with complete strangers, and a little bit of prayer, I was able to go on and make it to the top of that mountain and see the most magnificent view of the world I’d ever seen, a view that has forever changed me into the person I am today.
Step by painfully slow step, Leo and I stuck with it. I continued to encourage him when he wanted to stop, and reassuring him that we could do it together. 25 minutes later, with only one step to go until we reached the top, Leo began to cry a little.
“Fresh air! Finally! Fresh air!” he shouted with relief.
This took me by surprise. It must have been 90 degrees outside, and with the humidity it was like trying to breath underneath a hot wet blanket. To me, the air was anything but fresh.
“Whoa, calm down buddy,” I said with a little laugh. “Its still a New York City summer out here.”
Leo looked at me and he laughed a little too.
“Oh you don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve been stuck down there for three days.”
I asked him to clarify, to please tell me he didn’t mean that he had been down in the subway platform for three days. This seemed nearly impossible to comprehend. While the temperatures in the city streets during the summer are hot, everyone knows that down inside the subway platforms they are almost unbearable.
Yes, Leo told me, he had been down on the platform for three days. He had initially gone down there trying to get a ride on the subway, and sat down to rest for a bit because his knee was killing him. When he tried to get up a while later, he couldn’t move. He tried to ask for help, but everyone who passed him thought he was asking for money, so they ignored him. For three days, thousands of humans walked by a man asking for help, and for a full three days he remained helpless despite them.
Eventually, Leo told me, he sort of gave up. But somehow, he convinced himself to try to make it to the first stairwell. Inch by inch, this had taken him two hours. Getting to the top of it had taken him another three. By the time I saw him, he’s been at it all day.
Disbelief and horror and heartbreak hit me all at once. A feeling of fierce and righteous determination burned inside of me.
“Ok,” I said. “Lets get you up this mountain.”
Leo looked at me incredulously, “This isn’t a mountain, girl! These are just stairs!”
When we made it to the top, about 40 minutes after we started, I had a feeling that Leo was right. They were just stairs, not a mountain. We were still in New York City, surrounded by humans that were still being humans. Leo was still going to struggle that day, and probably for the next lifetime after that, and me helping him up some stairs, or even the $20 bill and bottle of water I had to beg him to take from me wasn’t going to change that.
I know what it looks like, to compare a homeless man’s devastating experience to my own white-girl-in-a-big-city’s trivial life experience. I’m under no illusion that our stories or struggles are the same or that writing about this doesn’t make me look like a total asshole. You can keep rolling your eyes though, because I cant apologize for the fact that I’m writing about it not because I feel like I changed Leo’s life, but because in the most cliché way possible, he changed mine. He reminded me of who I am; the white girl in a big city with the breathtaking views inside her heart who wants to connect with humans instead of passing them by or leaving them for dead.
Sometimes recording these mundane stories of simple change does big things in a small way, and I feel like that’s important enough to put on paper. Most of the time, it’s all I’ve got.
So infrequent a human connection in this city, so much rushing to the next that has removed me from what its like to look someone in the eye and see their story, to even think to ask what their story is, or where they have been for so long. Have they been struggling with life? Or changing for the better? Or feeling stuck? Or literally stuck, maybe on a subway platform for three days?
Don’t get me wrong, New York City is all kinds of great things. The art, the food, the people, the electric energy of ideas and activism. There is plenty of good here, folded into the fabric of these heavily layered streets, and even more opportunity to love and be loved. But somehow we’ve managed to just stop looking at one another. Instead we are looking away, or down at our phones, or toward the next so much that we have become desensitized to the fact that a man could be trapped and alone amongst thousands of us. Somehow, this kind of thing has just become a part of the scenery.
“I’ve been praying that someone would come and help me!” Leo called out as I was walking away, right after he asked to take me out to dinner with the $20 I gave him.
“I was waiting for you!”
I’d been waiting for Leo, too. For our togetherness, for our little team to be hastily assembled with what little we had that day, which was really only each other.
That day on the subway stairs, among the chaos and right in the middle of where I was going, Leo gave me something I couldn’t possibly find on my usual rush to the next. And even though it smelled bad and was dirty and moved slower than everything else, it was another beautiful view that changed me.