Chan Lowe: A lesson in life from the streets of New York

PITTSFIELD — Last week my wife and I traveled to New York City to take in a show. Afterward, as we descended the steps of Lincoln Center to Broadway, we heard a pitiful moan — a female voice calling out, "Water! Water!" Sprawled on the steps was a pile of rags with two brown feet sticking out from the bottom at skewed angles. The juxtaposition was classic New York — theatergoers who had just shelled out $100 per ticket giving the spectacle a wide berth, some tut-tutting as they glided by at a distance and hailed taxis or tapped for Ubers.

It was one of those watershed moments when you realize that you've arrived at an inflection point in your life. The decision you make in that instant is one that, if you have an active conscience, will continue to remind you of the kind of person you are. What everybody else does in the circumstance doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is what you do.

I'm no saint. In the space of half a second I fought the urge to blend in with the crowd and continue on to enjoy my evening. During that half second, though, my wife and I (as we discovered when talking about it afterward) simultaneously determined that we could never live with ourselves if we didn't stop to see if this miserable wretch needed help. "Water!" she wailed again.

We moved in close and crouched down to talk to her. Her face was covered with more rags except for her eyes, which were pleading. She already had three small plastic bottles of water that someone had brought her, one of them half empty. I reached down and put some money under a fold of her blanket where she could protect it. She left it there.

"Thank you, thank you so much for stopping," she said. "Where are you from?" We found out that learning where people came from was very important to her. We told her we were from Pittsfield, a town in Western Massachusetts. The eyes above the rags lost their panicky edge, and the woman uttered just about the last phrase either one of us expected to hear. "Area code 413!" she said. "I went to UMass Amherst!" As we subsequently learned, she had majored in Asian Studies and spoke Japanese and Mandarin fluently. She introduced herself as Elizabeth and asked our names.

Useless majors

At this point, a woman who had stopped to listen said, "Hey, I went to college in Massachusetts, too!" After introducing us all to one another, Elizabeth asked our new companion where she had gone to school, and what her major was. It was Harvard. As for her major: "English," she said, rolling her eyes as if to say, " and a lot of good that did me. "

"Try art history," I said, laughing, which covered my wife and me. There we were, four strangers on a stair in midtown Manhattan, united by our Massachusetts educations and the fact that we had majored in relatively useless subjects for the love of knowledge. The air had become festive, like a little reunion.

During the course of our conversation, the balance had subtly shifted to Elizabeth. She was now the grande dame of an impromptu sidewalk salon, presiding over a growing group of attendees.

The Harvard graduate asked Elizabeth why she didn't go to a shelter. As it happened, "Elizabeth" was her adopted name; she was transgender, and as she put it coyly, "I can't go to a women's shelter because I still have my `man parts.' If I go to a men's shelter, I won't survive. I'll just go sleep in the park tonight. I'll be safer there."

What Elizabeth wanted most of all was company and just some acknowledgment that she existed. Until we showed up, the only attention she had received was when an earlier passerby had spat upon her.

We talked a little more about how much we all loved Massachusetts. The Harvard alumna had gotten out her cell phone and found a shelter for transgender people (this was New York, after all). But it was late, and the shelter was far downtown. "I'll just go to the park," Elizabeth repeated. Meanwhile, a gentleman came back with a sandwich to give her. Upon Elizabeth's questioning, he revealed that he was from Chicago. We stood around, chatting.

Elizabeth was relaxed now. She wanted a hug from her new friends. We all hugged — Elizabeth, the Massachusetts alumni contingent and Mr. Windy City. Once we had determined that Elizabeth had everything she needed, we waved goodbye to her and each other and went our separate ways.

A charmed bubble

For an instant in time, we had occupied a small, charmed bubble within the unforgiving city. It was as though a soft mantle had settled around us. As we went on about our business, I reflected that we had just been shown how our country could get out of its mess. It wasn't that those who walked past Elizabeth were bad people — she was simply irrelevant to them. This was a city that knew Donald Trump well enough to despise him, and had had decades to be repulsed by his "me first and the hell with everybody else" attitude. Yet, its denizens had missed an opportunity to commit an individual act of respect for a member of their community.

If you multiply that lack of empathy by millions, you end up choosing a leader who gives you permission to continue acting that way — in fact, someone who delights in the practice of vilifying and ignoring the suffering of those who aren't members of his tribe.

Conversely, when you stop to check in on the welfare of an outcast, that small act not only benefits the recipient, it incrementally rebuilds that caring human spirit we're all born with — a spirit that is under unremitting assault from the sharp edges of modern life.

The musical my wife and I saw was "My Fair Lady," about a Cockney woman plucked from the streets, taught how to speak properly, clothed richly and subsequently passed off among the aristocracy as one of their own. When George Bernard Shaw wrote "Pygmalion," upon which the musical was based, he wanted to highlight the folly that there is any real difference between the classes — other than surface patina. Meeting Elizabeth was, for us, like getting an encore.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.