How do you just randomly help someone in need?

I had planned on writing an article today about how little sleep I got last night, which is something commonly discussed among parents because it is such a frequent occurrence. My kids are night owls and their sleep patterns are consistently inconsistent. 

They didn’t fall asleep until about 10:30 PM last night and then my 1 year old was up from 3:30 AM until around 5:30 AM. While I was up with her, I kept thinking about how many hours and minutes there were until I had to be up and ready to leave for work.

At around 4:45 AM, I found myself in my living room with my daughter in a complete daze. She was dancing and asking to watch Sesame Street while I was sleeping standing up swaying from side to side. My wife, who was also awake, came into the living room and asked me what we were doing. I didn’t have an answer because I was half asleep and I didn’t really know what my plan was. That being said, my night of crappy sleep still could not compare to what I saw this morning on the subway while on my way to work.

While I was on my way into work today I saw a young man enter the subway at the Smith and 9th Street station on the F/G line. He walked in with his head down and pressed his back up against the door to the conductor’s booth. He was tall, skinny and had soft features. He was extremely skittish. He was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt that was much too small for him. Once he got onto the train he pulled the hood down over his tired and worrisome eyes. For some people this may have appeared to be suspicious, but I could tell he was just trying to hide. It was clear that he didn’t want to be seen and his hood was his invisibility cloak.

We coincidentally got off of the train at the same stop. While I was walking behind him I noticed the zipper on his backpack was broken. He kept touching it to make sure the large flap on his bag was tucked underneath so nothing in his bag would be exposed or fall out. From the looks of it there was very little if anything inside of his bag. The bag was old, broken, filthy and completely flat. There clearly weren’t any notebooks or textbooks, lunch or clothes inside of his bag. It also obviously bothered him that his bag was broken and he continued to check the broken flap as he walked down the platform.

This broke my heart. I was also wearing a backpack and I wanted to take all of my stuff out of my bag and give him mine. I wanted to stuff my lunch and my junk in my pockets and give him my bag so that he didn’t have to keep checking that flap. I didn’t want him to be self-conscious about his bag anymore and I felt like I could have easily helped, but instead I chickened out. 

I hesitated and then decided not to give it to him because I felt that this may have been inappropriate. Many questions crossed my mind.

How do you just randomly help someone in need?

Would it be insulting if I offered him my bag?

I didn’t know the answers to these questions then and I still don’t know now.

My urge to help this young man intensified when I also noticed that his clothes were extremely dirty. His gray sweatpants were heavily soiled and stained with dirt on the back and front of his legs. I could only assume that this young man was sitting on the ground a lot and most likely sleeps outside. I wondered if he slept in a bed last night or if he had slept in the street. This completely crushed me. Here I am with a fairly new backpack full of food, clean clothes, two cell phones, and I am on my way to work. How could I ever complain about anything I have or don’t have? 

I was ashamed and felt an immense sense of guilt. I thought about where I was and what I was doing at his age. At 16 I was on my way to a private Catholic school in Manhattan with money in my clean pants pocket that my mother had washed for me. I didn’t have a care in the world and my biggest concern was maybe, just maybe that English test I had that afternoon.

At this point, my shame turned to anger and frustration because I couldn’t help this young man. His connecting train came and he walked past me. I could smell how soiled his clothes were and it had clearly been days since he last washed. He got onto the train, glanced at me and then sat with his head leaning against the side window of the train. 

I felt like I had lost him forever. I felt like I did nothing when I could have. I just stood there and watched him go. He looked resilient and smart, but he also looked uncertain and worried.

What could I have done? What could I have done? What could I have done?

I repeatedly asked myself this question and still continue to now. That young man is poor and alone. 

How can he get the helping hand he needs?

Who is going to put shoes on his feet and clean clothes on his back?

Who is going to put food in his stomach and most importantly give him the opportunities that most of us took for granted at his age?

More questions. No answers.

I wanted it to be me. I wanted to help him, but I just didn’t know how to. I feel like I had failed. I failed him and I failed myself. I have asked people these questions before and the answer I usually get is to just to give to a charity. I get stopped on the street by the ACLU, PETA and Save the Children all the time, but what about this young man who was right here in front of me? 

How does he get the help he needs?

What could I have done? 

I need to find the answer to this question.

So, after thinking about the sleepless night I had in a safe, temperature controlled house, with a full belly, a supportive family and a job to go to in the morning, 1000 sleepless nights don’t even come close to what this young man goes through every single day.

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