1980's NYC and the Feast to Come
It is freezing, and I am stunned. I had learned about homelessness in school and seen it in movies but to see the way the Mole People lived.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1)
When I was a child, my parents took my brother and me on our first trip into New York City. The train ride from Connecticut is both exciting and boring, as far as children are concerned. Men in business suits sit next to migrant workers who themselves sit next to lovers, teenager kids playing hooky from school and oblivious to everyone else. No one talks, and if they must, it's in hushed tones usually reserved for doctor's offices and libraries. The boy and girl kiss, tell sweet secrets to each other, laughing at salacious flirts and eventually falling asleep. The girl's head rests upon the boy's shoulder, her hair streaming down his sweatshirt as they clasp hands. They are alive and know it, dreamers and rebels, but do they know things won't always be this way? The businessmen read their New York Times and Wall Street Journal, they all recognize each other from the daily commute, but none of them has ever said "hello," and likely never will. I sit trying to occupy myself by reading the thin advertisements that run along the overhead trim and on the bulkheads: Cats: the Musical, Liberty Insurance, McDonald's, Metro-North, and more. The train's interior is mostly made of varying forms of pleather and plastic, durable and inartistic and the adverts are at home here. Some seats face forward, others backward, which means you may be positioned in such a way that forms a little parliament-strangers staring at each other, but this facilitates no talking.
As the train approaches the city the gray light of the frosty morning reveals the random trails of steam and exhaust escaping from unseen, underground reaches; grates, sewers, orange cone-poles leaking heat, and industrial stacks sleepily breathing amidst parked cars warming up. It is an urban landscape, eerily quiet and at rest, but waking to life, a stirring giant stretching and yawning, readying to rise. In such moments, as you stare out the window, you cannot help but feel a surge of anticipation, the city's strange calm inching to its rightful frenzy.
Suddenly, and without warning, the train enters its final tunnel, swallowing up the morning in unforgiving darkness as the florescent lights of the train turn on in delayed response. We amble under the bedrock towards Grand Central Station, the clicking tracks and wrenching of the train car echoing in the tunnel as we begin our slow descent to Hades. The outside is solid black, and the reflection of the overhead lights too bright, turning the window into a makeshift mirror. But despite the warring contrasts of light and darkness, reflection and noise, glimpses of fires appear in the outer distance, surprising and alarming young eyes—are they monsters? With cupped hands, you press your face against the glass, unaware of the dirty skim coat that covers it, and now your nose. What is out there?
As the train decelerates for its final mile, strings of caged socket lights mix with low-lying, mostly burnt-out sodium bulbs, washing an orange cast over the oily, dank ground that is the exterior. A mix of hollowed-out earth and old concrete, this cavernous world seems half-made, as if workers reached the shores of hell and then dropped their tools. They never returned. Ancient, riveted steel beams stand in exhaust-stained earth, the sides of some so caked in grease, scum, and filth, the after-effects from decades of passing trains, that they appear carved out of rocks. And now I can make out the fires. Great steel barrels filled with wood and trash burning in the distance, a shanty mess of people encircling them for warmth, their faces dirty with black soot in the gauzy, cantalouped light. You find out later they are called "The Mole People." You do not think you have seen a more depressing sight, and your first feeling of N.Y.C. is regret.
The train comes to a halt and instantly alive. Immediately, the spirit of the city takes over, and the voyeuristic scene ends. Everyone springs from the seats and sprints away. As I walk out onto the platform, the air is thick, humid, and hot. It smells of exhaust and brake dust. We ascend a flight of stairs that leads us into the Main Concourse of Grand Central Station. Those who have been there in recent times, after the restoration of 1995, may have forgotten or never experienced the G.C.S. of the 1980s. Dirty, run-down, depressed, it is full of vagabonds and pickpockets among commuters and addicts. The building reminds you of a longtime meth user—sickly, broken, hints of former glory and beauty still apparent, but mostly a sad commentary of a life tormented with trouble and lost love. The beautiful ceiling today, with constellations in gold leaf and teal painted top, is a soot-covered black halo, a dystopian crown worn on a deflowered queen. Giant advertisements in billboards that span most of the concourse cover the walls, the beauty of the Beaux-Arts style regaled with 80s postmodern kitsch. The tycoons and corporations stake their claim here, and it reflects in the sad surroundings. Most of the small shops and vendors left long ago; their windows are boarded up. On our way towards the exit, walking past a man asleep on a small counter, his back resting against the plywood-sealed window of what was once a shop, my youthful brain wonders why no one is helping these people? It is my first encounter with real homelessness.
Perhaps it was the long ride or just my bladder, but I told my father, "I have to use the bathroom." "Can't you hold it a little longer?" he asked. "No," I said perturbed, for if I could, I would not have asked to use it. My father, worried and annoyed for reasons that would soon become clear, changed direction and lead us to the bathrooms. When the bathrooms come into sight, and before we can enter, a woman in her twenties approaches holding an infant. She is crying; her face is puffy, red, and swollen. Pockmarks and running mascara make her pitiful and frightening, but there is beauty there too, an echo of better times masked behind hard living and obsolete dreams. With tears she says, "Sir, can you spare some money for the baby? My baby needs to eat." My father, taking a firmer hold of my hand and my brother's says as gently as he can that he does not. The woman persists, "Please, sir, it's for the baby, the baby is hungry, just a few dollars, that's all I need, she needs food." I wanted to tell my father to give her something, but I knew enough not to interrupt in situations when he was tense. "I'm sorry, but I can't give you anything," he says as he leads my brother and I passed her, my mother following behind, herself on the verge of tears. The crying woman walks away and tries begging from another person, going from person to person with the same story, in the same words. No one helps, even as the baby cries. Two cops stand nearby, and they do not seem to care about her solicitations; they do not seem to care about much. My mother, who is now unnerved, scolds my father for not giving the woman something. My father annoyed at the lecture, replies that the money isn't likely to go to the baby, and he isn't about to show everyone he has cash to give away. In this sense he is right, there are homeless everywhere, some talking to themselves, a few with needles and drug paraphilia next to them, many of them asleep on the floor or panhandling in the corners. From my father's perspective, his role is to get us out of this place without incident.
We reach the bathrooms and before going in my father sternly tells my brother and me to make sure that we stick close and not to leave the entrance to the bathroom without him. We go in with him, and what looks like a homeless man greets us at the entryway. "You need a toilet?" he says firmly, but kindly. "Yes, for my boys," my father replies. "Five dollars," the man says without hesitation, his hand outstretched. These are public toilets, but in the 80s syndicates of homeless who charge for the use mostly run them. Sometimes the cops decide to do something and chase them out, but they return as soon as the police move on. If you want to use the toilet, you have to pay. It's not legal, but it's the way things work. My father gives the man five dollars. Then it happens. I see something I will never forget.
The man who took the money starts pounding on the stall doors asking who is done. Some answer, and some don't. At one point he forces open a stall door where an elderly black man is sitting doing his business. From the way he looks, the man is almost certainly homeless. The five-dollar man grabs him and pulls him from the pot, tossing him with a thrust. Tripping over his downed pants, the older man falls to the floor. He is dazed but neither angry nor frightened. No one helps him. He pulls up his pants and strolls out. "Here's your toilet," the five-dollar man says, smiling cheerfully. He is proud he has procured us a stall and now returns to the entrance so he can make another fiver. When we leave, polite and smiling, the five-dollar man wishes us a nice day as if we had just left the Plaza Hotel's bathroom. I am terrified.
Exiting the station, we proceed out into the cold air and bright morning light of the city. On our way to Times Square, and not far from the Public Library, we walk around sleeping homeless on the sidewalk. It is freezing, and I am stunned. I had learned about homelessness in school and seen it in movies but to see the way the Mole People lived, to hear the crying mother, and to walk around sleeping people covered in trash bags and old blankets, that's another thing entirely. It is hard facing your own privilege, harder still to help others because of your privilege, and hardest of all to live without privilege. Christians are called by their Lord to help the poor, and it became a mandate of the Early Church that the preaching of the Gospel should come with help for the poor (Galatians 2:10). But most of the Christians had fled the city as the crime increased, preferring to raise their children in Edenic suburbia where poverty is concealed behind manicured laws, good schools and S.U.V.s.
As the day fades away, after we've made use of the city, we reenter the train for the journey home. The tunnel, and the Mole People with their fires, soon disappear as the train trundles into the ashen twilight. The lights of the city take turns blinking on, incandescent stars waking from their slumber turning the landscape into a galaxy of shimmering jewels. I look out at the tall apartment buildings with their shaded windows washed in warm light and wonder what it must be like to live in this city all the time? The clicking tracks below cadence us home where we will soon forget the plight of those who tomorrow will still be around their barrel fires. As night encroaches boredom and fatigue take over. The businessmen are once again reading their papers, but there are no teenage lovers this time, and the advertisements are still overstated. The shimmying car rocks me to sleep, and as I fade into rest, I become one with the counter-man, sharing with him a retreat from reality into dreamscapes.
It's been over 30 years since that first day I went into the city. And the faces of the people have faded except for the crying woman. Eventually, her face will disappear too. I have learned that the counter-man cannot count on me for help. He has my heart, but it is not enough because he needs my resources. But I do not give them. I have my excuses, and they are good, good enough to barricade my heart from mawkish and maudlin generosity, good enough to let me sleep in a bed while he reclines on a counter. I cannot save the world, nor the counter-man. I cannot even save myself, and besides, I have my own problems. I do not know if the help I desire to give the counter-man will do more harm than good, enable, or give life? So I do nothing, overwhelmed with queries that make cruelty permissible and ingratitude excusable. It seems wrong to not help the counter-man. It seems wrong to enable the counter-man. The sad fact is the brokenness that affects the counter-man affects me too. Our experiences, privileges, resources, and quality of life are vastly different, but our shared brokenness is not. He cannot help himself, and I cannot help myself. We share poverty in this narrow sense, living in a cruel world where selfishness reigns and inequity and injustice are commonplace. And in differing degrees, we are both victims and victimizers.
In a spiritual sense, we are the Mole People too, living in darkness and grime by our little fires. And we are the crying woman with the baby, helpless, scared, the product of bad decisions and missed opportunities. We are the five-dollar man, a person just trying to get by, taking advantage of the situation not out of malice but desperation. And we are the old man tossed to the floor, betrayed, weak, disrespected, a shell of former glory. We are the sidewalk sleepers on the cold streets piled with trash, crowds stepping over and around but remaining invisible. And we are the young boy, awakened to the plight of others but unable to fix the problem or himself, and thus always tempted to offers excuses from such dilemmas. In the cold, dirty spaces of 1980s N.Y.C., the brokenness of humanity on inky display, a mass of survivors and social climbers, addicts, and accountants, tourists and trouble makers, families and forgetfuls, a sea of people for the briefest of moments together in a palace whose opulence is her desperation.
But God is there too, the current under the waters, the regnum behind the polished stones. In Isaiah 55, God calls out to the spiritually impoverished and issues an invitation: Come! Multiple times He beckons, He petitions: "Come, everyone who thirsts come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." "Come, Mole People, counter sleepers, come and buy. Come you thirsty, you crying mothers who need milk, you saddened outcasts who need wine. Come and buy and eat!"
But how are the poor to buy anything? A careful reader notices Isaiah does not say, "come and receive, come and get, come and take." Instead, he speaks (two times) to come and buy. What good is this? How can the poor transact commerce? Isaiah appears insulting or insane until we hear the instruction to buy without price. What is going on?
Isaiah refuses to surrender the language of transaction. The poor are to come and receive, but their gifts are not technically free. They are graced. Isaiah wants his readers to know that Another has purchased the food, the water, and wine, the milk, for them. Someone has already provided. The poor have nothing to sell and nothing to bring. So they arrive in their poverty. And when they come they find that the transaction has already occurred, for Isaiah, in the guise of a character called, "The Servant," who he previously mentioned in earlier chapters, and now speaks. In verses 3-5 he says, "Incline your ear, and come to me; hear that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader, and commander of the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you."
Isaiah teaches us that the poor need help, and the Servant beckons them to come, for He has purchased them a great feast. He will be for them what no one else will be or can be. The Servant's invitation is to everyone because everyone needs the feast: the counter-man, the businessmen, the crying woman, the teenage lovers, the starry-eyed child, and the five-dollar man. "Come, everyone who thirsts." Everyone. Even the wicked and selfish like me. The Servant is indiscriminate. He seats the addicts by the cops and the homeless by the greedy. He has brought and bought them all to his feast.
Does this mean he lets us off the hook for our responsibilities to others? If we are asking if anything we do, should do, or fail to do could cancel our invitation to the feast, then yes, He lets us off the hook because the feast is already paid for and the invitation is never earned. The Servant truly serves, gracing everyone who will come. The Servant's death is the price extracted so that everyone can come to the feast with food already paid for, and which they did nothing to earn or deserve.
But a strange thing happens to those attending the feast. Seated together around a table no one can claim his or her blessings as self-made. In this second sense, my responsibilities are not relinquished but increased. For the table does not just give me feast and food, it also gives me my neighbor. It gives me my neighbor, who shares the invitation of the feast. The question is, will I pass the platter passed to me? When the Roast Beef comes around, will I take some, adding it to my plate, passing the rest to my neighbor, or will I set the platter down in front of me and gorge myself? If I had paid for the food, I would be in my rights to do this. But I haven't. None of us has. The generosity of the Servant makes me a servant, and I get to pass on what I first received. That is how the feast and the work of the Servant begin to work in us. It starts with our gratitude and wells up into a sharing of gifts, never perfectly, for the old nature is still there, but never as before either. And as I reflect upon the grace and generosity of my Lord, I come to see him in the counter-man, God's gift to me to share what I have received. And I start to see my Lord in me, seeing my identity less in my moral performance and more "in Christ"; swallowed up in him as the train tunnel swallows up the light. And today, I say prayers for the counter-man. His face is lost to memory, and I never knew his name. But perhaps the counter-man can remind us all that the feast awaiting him awaits us too. And so, let's give our lives over to those on the highways, in the hedges, and sleeping on the countertops.
In the passing shuffle of the Main Concourse, the derelict palace appears lost of hope. But looks can be deceiving. Amidst the buskers and the businessmen, the lovers and the losers, the pushers and the prostitutes, the stage is set for a great feast. Into the vaulted chambers stained in grime, the wound-wearing Servant appears. He looks around, scanning the landscape and smiling says, "Set it up here; this is where we will eat." Then he looks out towards the passing crowds and yells for them to come and dine. Some think he's mad; some think he's a manipulator, and others a performance artist. But some actually come. They are hungry and thirsty, and they will buy without price.
And there they sit, at a long table in the middle of Grand Central Station: The businessmen, the lovers, the young family, the crying woman, the police officers, the five-dollar man, the sidewalk sleepers, the old man, the Mole People, and the counter-man. Under the stained ceiling and above the barrel fires, beside the billboards and between boarded-up shops, the first plate passes from the Servant to the boy. He takes his share of the gift. But this time, he passes the plate to his neighbor. The counter-man smiles with a toothless grin and passes the boy a basket of bread. The boy takes the bread with gratitude. The Servant, the boy, and the counter-man look at each other and smile. Wine splashes into goblets, the baby laughs. All the beggars feast.