Did you ever just stand and stare at people on a crowded street, at an airport or at Penn Station? If you haven't, you should. It is quite a telling experience. Honestly, I do it on a regular basis. It helps me to have a sense of where people are and how they are feeling.
Right before the horrors of September 11th scarred our memories, I stood in Penn Station. I witnessed a sea of humanity racing passed each other, barely moving their gaze an inch in either direction. Each person determined to get wherever he or she was going. People went in and out of stores, rarely holding a door, racing by, bumping and brushing by barely uttering a word. For some, this is their experience of Penn Station five or six days a week.
If the truth be told, this is one's experience in an airport, at a mall or on Main Street in downtown Port Jefferson on a Friday night. If you hold a door or greet another human being, you are looked at as weird. Fewer and fewer are exposing themselves to the weirdness and madness of mainstream humanity. People are sticking to themselves.
After September 11th there was reaching out and touching. Strangers were reaching out to strangers. People from every walk of life were slowing down and acknowledging each other. As most of us will recall, it was somewhat amazing.
Everywhere I go I hear countless stories of how people are looking at life differently. So many people have expressed how they have rearranged their priorities. No one seems to be looking at their life the same.
More and more people are concerned about the simple things of life - of making a difference that counts - of touching other people's lives. Certain material things are no longer important. People have once again returned people to center stage as the real value in life.
September 11th has changed our lives forever. We will never look at the world, our nation and ourselves the same way. The senseless loss of innocent life that day has caused most of us to re-think the relationships we share. It has caused us to reach out and communicate our affection for those in our lives who might ordinarily get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day existence.
The little things that too often get buried in the rubble of self-centered existence have regained importance and significance.
A growing number of people have become concerned enough to say those little things that too often get lost, forgotten or are never said at all. We have all been painfully reminded that life is fragile, that we are all mortal and that we will rarely know if the present moment will be the last time our paths will cross. Thus, we need to seize the day and say and do what we must, for we might never connect and pass this way again.
In the fall of 1981, around 10pm at night, a frightened teenager rang the doorbell of Hope House where I was living. He was shivering. He asked if we could talk. He came in out of the crisp fall air and we sat in the dining room around our table. He told me that he was running away from Westchester. He and his mother had had a fight a few nights before. To punish her, he ran away.
He got on the train at Penn Station and headed for Port Jefferson because he heard our town was cool. At Huntington while changing trains, a couple of boys jumped him and stole all of his money and valuables. All he had was a one-way ticket to Port Jefferson. So, he got on the Port Jefferson train and rode it to the end.
By the time he arrived at the train station, it was dinnertime. It was quickly getting dark. He had no money, not even a dime for a phone call. Someone on the street uptown suggested that he talk to me about his plight. He did. And he talked for hours.
It was after midnight when he finished. We tried to contact his mother, but couldn't. I offered him hospitality for the night. He reluctantly accepted. He was afraid. He asked if he could borrow twenty bucks so he could leave in the early hours to get home.
It is not my practice to give strangers cash, especially teenagers. Usually I will buy a train ticket or some bus tokens, but I broke my rule and gave JR a twenty-dollar bill. He swore he would send it back when he got home.
Well, needless to say I never heard from JR until September 29th. I received a very formal letter from a corporate office with a midtown Fifth Avenue address. Enclosed in this formal letter was a wrinkled twenty-dollar bill that JR had intended to send me over the past twenty years. His letter indicated that he had wanted to write so many times over the years just to say thank you for a conversation that unbeknownst to me had made all the difference in his life.
In his letter, JR told me what had happened twenty years ago on the early morning that he left. He went into Penn Station, went to his mother's office on the upper West Side and reconciled with her. He told her of his plight and the conversation we shared. In his letter he said he couldn't remember my name or the place, but said that for the past twenty years he had wanted to, just to say thanks and return the twenty dollars.
After September 11th and a personal scare, JR indicated that he had become very melancholy and reflective on his life. God had blessed him. He had done well during these past twenty years and was really grateful. However, he realized that he didn't always express it. He was watching one of the countless news reports on the aftermath of the Twin Towers disaster and saw a poster on the news that said, "United We Stand in Hope." Seeing the word hope reminded him of Hope House and an unpaid debt. (He also remembered my first name and the sandals.)
He said that he had some unfinished business. Then in bold, double sized print, he wrote THANK YOU and signed his name.
Those two words meant a lot. I might forget that kid/man and even our conversation, but I will never forget that twenty years later someone cared enough to write and say thank you.