Traveling Alone Part II (The 2nd Thing I learned Sophomore Year)
This is the second part of my two-part blogs on traveling alone with the Nichols Humanitarian Fund. I’m so grateful to the Nichols for the chance to travel, and the awesome chance of meeting them in person in September. They truly are lovely people.
As always, I’d love to get an email from you! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you want to check out my other blog posts on sophomore and junior year, check out The 4 Things I learned Junior Year, and its companion, The 11 Things I learned Sophomore Year!
Seeing a new city is always an experience. First you see the buildings. Then, the landscape comes into view, the vegetation, trees, and many, many flowers, with other members of the landscape, the busy, busy people who are walking and talking fast. They, with their little dogs and iPhones, are constant fixtures in this place. Suddenly, you turn a fraction of a degree and see something else: a head snuggled under a blanket, the owner of which is snuggled into the underside of a building.
I learn a city by its people. There’s tourists, of course, the regulars, and then the real regulars. These are they that eat and sleep and breathe both in and on and under the city, those who know it by its bridges because that’s where they sleep, those that know the transit system because that’s how they try to make a few bucks, those that know the places that are warm and cold and have nice bathrooms.
The place that fits the description is usually the city library, which is where I head to begin my project that first Monday morning. There, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I’m planning on checking out a few books on health insurance to get myself acquainted with this complex though crucial world of insurance. I also know that public libraries are usually home to city health programs and service activities, so it’s a good place to get started.
God seems to answer my prayers right away. Immediately as I walk in I see someone whom I presume is a nurse talking to a man in a bright yellow though slightly soiled jacket. He is talking loudly to her about his blood pressure, and she is listening patiently. I wait by the table for a few minutes, totally intrigued as to why she is taking his blood pressure at a city library, and when she sees me, she smiles. As she finishes up with the man, giving him some pamphlets on Hepatitis C testing and ways to control his high blood pressure, I watch her demeanor. She is a perfect listener, looking caring, concerned, and totally engaged. When she speaks to him in closing, she chooses her words authoritatively but kindly. Once he walks away, I introduce myself as a college student pursuing a public health project and ask if I can interview her. She agrees.
Talk about caring for the poor and vulnerable. Monica is definitely doing that with her work of taking blood pressure for free as well as insulin testing. She’s chock-full of resources that fit the interests of most of her clientele, those experiencing homelessness, but most of all she’s full of love. Monica confirms my initial thought that sometimes, the worst thing that someone is going through is not high blood pressure or low insulin but loneliness. It reminds me of when Mother Teresa says that the greatest poverty in the world is the feeling of being alone and abandoned, just like the poverty that Jesus felt on the cross.
In my experience in the subsequent weeks, I’ll find that this is a common theme among those who work with runaway and abused kids, malnourished adults, those without healthcare, and patients in the Medical Intensive Care Unit. The greatest poverty is being alone with not having anyone to talk to or to care for you. The greatest poverty is loneliness.
Two weeks later, I’m walking down a street in New York City, having taken a $25 Megabus to explore a city I’ve spent years dreaming about. I’m walking, trying to look like a local in my black hat and jeggings, trying to look cool. It’s just when I turn the corner of Fifth Avenue when I see him. He’s sleeping under a towering construction scaffold. It’s 1 pm in the afternoon, and I wonder how he can be sleeping now, especially with all the noise of New York. All the way down the block I walk, closer and closer. I’m wondering what I should do when he opens his eyes at the approaching feet of a very large group of tourists. Somehow, he sees me.
“Ma’am? Would you, um, do something for me?”
I have to stop. His voice doesn’t seem threatening; it sounds weak. Then I notice the unopened packets of dried fruit and snacks next to him. This man hasn’t eaten in awhile.
“Would you please put my blanket over my feet? I just can’t reach and I’m tired. So tired.”
I do as he asks. The brown blanket is scratchy, and I wonder how long his feet have been bare. I remember how hard it is to cover my own feet with a blanket at home, and how sometimes, when they’re sleeping, the blanket comes off my sisters’ feet, and how, when it’s not put back on, they wake up sounding slightly nasally with gravelly voices. Suddenly, I come back to the present as he says thank you. After saying that he’s welcome, I introduce myself, remembering that if you chat with someone experiencing homelessness you should always ask their name, something remembered from a spring break foray with Christ in the City weeks ago.
“My name is James. Thank you, honey, for doing that for me. I feel a better now, but I’m still so tired.”
I ask him if he would like me to get anything for him, but he refuses. No food, no nothing, and I can’t help but think that the greatest poverty in the world is loneliness. All he wanted was someone to cover his feet. I wonder how many people want the same.