A few days after I came home from Part II of the Teen Tour Summer, Eastern European odyssey, I was in my hometown on my way to buy ice cream, when a woman approached me. She looked like she was about to cry, and said she needed $20 because she was locked out. The rest of what this woman said won’t make my ultimate decision—to loan her $20 and keep her son’s social security card as a kind of collateral—seem any wiser.
But I had just come back from a trip where a lot of people helped me. There was the college acquaintance who let me stay in her apartment in Berlin, the Israeli real estate investor who gave me a ride to the train station in Burgas, and the teenage Turkish girl who showed me around the Asian side of Istanbul. She approached me when I got off the ferry—I was with some cyclists who I had met at the Black Sea in Bulgaria—and said, “I know a lot of people in Turkey are trying to rip you off, but I just want to show you around.”
As sales pitches go, this was maybe not the best approach, but the bikers believed her, and I was with them. She led us to a good place for a lunch, took us to the bathhouse we wanted to visit, and brought us to a beautiful meditation garden, where she often reminded me to cover my legs. She was insistently friendly and odd, so odd that even though she paid for our bus tickets, I worried all day that she would lead us into an alley where we would be killed. But she didn’t, and now she and I are Facebook friends.
All this is to say, when I got back to New York, I wanted to do the universe favors. I wanted to live in a place where if I got locked out of my apartment, someone would lend me $20 for a locksmith, and I would return that money.
For a while, or like a week, it bothered me that I was naïve to give that woman money, that I should have paid more attention to how dirty her fingernails were, that no one responsible enough to pay back $20 would be willing to give her son’s social security card away, or would have the social security card of a stranger. I’ve outgrown that feeling. I’ve returned to a self I wouldn’t even call hardened, but a self that can’t get caught up in calling a strange woman every day for a week to get $18 back on a $20 loan.
There are homeless people in Denver. They hang out at long traffic lights, willing to trade cigarettes for dollar bills. They hold signs about their service or their kids to distinguish themselves from travelers and oogles. In New York, when the subway door opened, and a man with no shoelaces and three coats shuffled through, there was no need for a sign. Still, anyone spending their day at the corner of Colorado and I-25 is probably not in a great place. And somehow, or because that’s the only way to get to work and get on with it, you have to roll up your window and not think too much about the world you would like to live in if you locked yourself out of your home.