Hero in Harlem

Sometimes people come into our lives if only for a brief moment to teach us an important truth. Allow me to share if you will a short story about one of these encounters in my own life.

A few days ago I was in Harlem getting my taxes prepared and I decided to venture out for something to eat while I waited. Close to the office I found a seafood market. It was one of those “hole in the wall” culinary treasures in the city. No seating, simple, and constantly busy. You take a basket and fill it with your choice of fresh seafood, then wait while they fry or steam it with old bay seasoning and butter right in front of you.

As I stood in the queue waiting expectantly for my meal, I was approached several times by a couple of people that asked me for money. My reply, being the typical New York response, was “No, sorry” and a shake of the head. Then I noticed another individual in the queue respond in a way that I had not seen before. He was approached by a small sullied woman with a timid demeanor and a dazed look that appeared to be heightened by some type of substance. He looked directly at her and said, “No, you gave away the sandwich I gave you last time.” She mumbled, “No, no I ate it.” He replied firmly, “I watched you walk outside and give it away. I will not give you money. But are you hungry? Do you want me to get you something to eat?” With this she shook her head and moved to the next person.

Apparently the man came to the market often, because the fry cook recognized him and had two slices of bread ready before the man even asked. The patron then turned to the bulky homeless man that was opening the door for customers in hope of a tip and asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like a sandwich?” The massive unkempt man shuffled inside and stood at the counter next to him without a word. The fry cook handed over the meal and there were four pieces of fish inside. The customer took the bread and put a piece of fish on it, and then to my surprise a second piece of fish on top of that. Half of his meal! He handed it to the man next to him asking what condiments he would like, passing him a napkin and inviting him to eat. And for the next five minutes they stood side by side, sharing a meal as equals.

As my new hero finished his meal, the same confused woman approached him again. It appeared that she had forgotten their previous conversation from minutes earlier. He looked at her and said, “I told you no. Wipe your nose.” She mumbled something indiscernible and he asked her, “Do you have a tissue? Here I will give you one.” He was firm yet kind in his interactions. As if she was a friend that he expected more from.

This man’s example was eye opening for me. You see, when I give a dollar or a pair of gloves to a person that asks along the way I feel like I am helping, like I am doing a kindness for someone in need. But this man, he took it to a relational level. It distinctly reminded me of those times in the New Testament where Jesus repeatedly sat and ate meals with people that society deemed “undesirable.” He showed them that he loved them and therefore that they were lovable. That they were not outcasts, nor were they invisible. Rather “they” became “we” when a meal was shared. People being recognized as individuals, each with a need, and a unique story.

I’m not sure what the background story of our hero is. When or how he was motivated to do what he seems to do regularly for others. But I can attest that his life and unbiased love has passed on a new way of thinking for me.

Written By

New Yorker, photographer, blogger, and life time dreamer.