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Under the City

April 25, 2012

Nearly 6 years ago, I had met a homeless veteran during outreach. Someone had stabbed him with a hypodermic needle for no clear reason. Flecks of blood dotted his army fatigues. I still remember the way he cried — angrily, with no tears — when he told us what had happened. He also told us that he had been shot in the face during the war — and I could see that he had grey patches on the side of his dark face. He asked for money — we offered him hot cocoa, jolly ranchers and condoms. He declined the jolly ranchers and blessed us.

I remembered him vividly tonight when I saw the madman on the train.

The man with the defiant-looking straws pushed into his ears didn’t scramble for his cup of change as it upturned, clattering all over the subway train floor. Instead, after several minutes of self-discussion, he pulled out fistfuls of paper napkins from his large bag and started sweeping the floor with them. He had an alarming way of fiercely maintaining eye contact if you happened to be watching him. Which I was.

After sweeping the floor, he stood up jerkily and walked to the train windows, opened them and threw out the paper napkins. (Who knew you could open the windows?) He did this several times.

Most of the other passengers pretended to ignore him, while catching each other’s eye. When I got off my stop, I looked behind and I saw that he had gotten off with me — only to hurry back inside as the doors slid shut.

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