I don’t tell this story often because, for people who aren’t used to trusting the power of a calm state of mind, it is at best weird and at worst frightening. But it’s true, and it happened to me in New York City in the early ’90’s, when my daughter was a student at New York University, living in a tiny apartment not large enough for me to stay with her. When I visited, I stayed at the Washington Square Park Hotel, several blocks from her.
One night, while I was walking back to the hotel from her apartment, I had the prickly feeling there was someone a few steps behind me. My first thought was to run or scream, but that didn’t make sense. I was walking past closed academic buildings. I did not know who was behind me or why; I wondered how to find out. I came to a crosswalk and stopped, and the person behind me remained behind me. He or she was hesitating; it occurred to me that the person was tentative about what to do next, too. They must be insecure about what they’re thinking of doing. Then the thought came to me that no one who is taking so much time to act can remain intent on doing harm to someone who is friendly and cares about them. So I turned around, extended my hand to what turned out to be a young man in a navy blue hooded sweat shirt. I said, “Hi, my name is Judy; what is yours?”
He was startled. He stood stiffly and stared at me. I kept talking.
“You know,” I said, “I was visiting someone back a few blocks that way. I am on my way to where I’m staying. I’m a little nervous walking alone. I didn’t realize it would be so quiet out here. Would you walk with me? I’d feel better if I had someone to walk with. What is your name?”
There was a pause, and then he relaxed, shook my hand, and said, “My name is Leon. And, yeah, I’ll walk with you.”
I asked him where he was from. “The park,” he answered. “I used to live in an apartment, but my mother got sent to jail and my little sister got sent to foster care. I am too old for that. So they just put me out. I live in the park now. In boxes, or whatever I can find to sleep in. I don’t sleep much. I’m scared most of the time.”
“Are you in school?” I asked. He looked downcast. “I was. I can’t go to school any more. I don’t have an address. I have no place to get cleaned up. I dropped out.” He told me he was nearing the end of 11th grade when he dropped out. He said he had had a B average and he used to think he would be able to go on to a public college, but now he had no hope of finishing his education.
I asked him if he had ever heard of the GED. He had, but he didn’t think he could take it. He didn’t have an address or a phone number, or parents at home. How could he fill out an application form? I told him, “Leon, come on, be a New Yorker. You can do it. Just put a number from any pizza box you find in the park on the form, use your old address and your mother’s real name. No one is going to call you; forms just need to be filled out. No one checks the information. Just pay close attention and make sure you know where the test is given and what time, and show up. You can go pick up your scores; they don’t have to mail them to you.”
“Do you think I could pass?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but if you were doing well in school and just about finished 11th grade, you probably will pass. And if you don’t, just take it again. Once you know what you missed, you can always go to the public library and study on your own. You have nothing to do anyway; you’ll be a lot safer in the library and you can read there all day long if you want to. Don’t give up on learning just because you’re not in school right now.”
As we walked along, he told me how worried he was about his little sister, and how frightened he was living on his own in the park. He never knew day to day what was going to happen, or how he would eat. He looked for a job at first, but there wasn’t anything that didn’t require a high school degree and now he was embarrassed because he looked so dirty and unkempt when he went to apply. “They look right through me like I’m nobody,” he said.
“You’re somebody,” I said. “You’re Leon. You can decide what Leon will become. Don’t give up your choices.”
We came near to my hotel, and I stopped and said, “Well, we’re just about where I was going. I want you to promise me that you will follow up on that GED. I know you can do it. You’re young; you were on a good path; you can get back on it.”
“Thank you,” he said, and then shook my hand again and started to walk away.
I called him back. I took out my wallet and went to hand him most of the cash I had.
“Oh, no, you’ve been so nice. I couldn’t take it,” he said.
“You were going to take it before we met, weren’t you?” I said.
“Well, yeah, but that was before I knew you. You’ve been really nice.”
“Now,” I said, “you can take it because I am freely giving it. Remember this: More people than you think will help you in life if you ask. Don’t do stupid stuff when you’re desperate. Calm down and look for someone friendly to help you along the way.”
He took the cash and waited on the sidewalk as I walked up the steps to the door of the hotel. When I turned to wave, he said, “I’m going to do what we talked about. I am. I promise. Thank you.”
I never saw him again, and I have no idea what he did with the money or whether he ever went to take his GED. But I know he did not hurt me, and maybe I helped him that night.
And I am sure that trusting myself to know what to do if I kept from jumping ahead of the moment and didn’t get reactive saved us both from harm that night.
Wisdom gives us the answer to every situation. The answer is always love.
“Love and understanding harmonize the mind of humanity to its true inner nature. What you give in life is what you receive. To give love is to receive love. A mind full of love and good feelings can never go wrong.”