One Step Away...

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There I sat at Newark’s Penn Station awaiting a train to Washington D.C. where I would attend a family event. I typically travel via air in order to be as efficient as possible, but I had been in the air quite a bit and I indulged an instinct to avoid air travel for this trip. Following my gut, I booked a train ticket from New Jersey to D.C. even though I rarely travel by train.

I arrived at the station early and discovered the train had a scheduled hour-long delay. The Northeast Corridor had just experienced one of the worst nor'easter storms of the season. The train station was crowded. Trains were delayed and oversold for multiple days due to the storm. Dozens awaited their trains undoubtedly frustrated. No problem I told myself. I will simply find a seat and await my train’s arrival.

As I searched to find a seat to settle in to wait, I could find none. Even the seats marked “Reserved for ticketed customers” were fully occupied. But, then I found one. I stepped toward it and set down my bags.

Looking around, what struck me first were the vast number of people sitting nearby who looked homeless, likely inside to escape the cold. I watched a tall man pass by carrying a plant. He was talking to himself. He paused to place the plant on the station windowsill and then turned and left. A maintenance worker came by a few minutes later and cleared the plant away. Moments later, a woman who sat near me, who looked like a waiting passenger, simply stood and circled the seating area then returned and sat back down. It wasn’t until she stood and circled the bench - eyes blank - five additional times, in less than 10 minutes, that I realized that this was her place of refuge as well. I watched her circle the bench and sit for 2 minutes at a time then circle the bench again; this ritual went on for almost 20 minutes. It bothered me a great deal to witness her agony. So much that I stood and changed my seat. I’ll just move to the other side of the terminal lobby I thought.

On the other side of the terminal was the tall man with yet another plant. He placed it on the windowsill. Again. The worker appeared a short while later and cleared that one too. To my right, I watched another man picking through the trash searching for bottles to recycle.

A younger man dressed in all black came along next. He paced the room talking to himself. Walking back and forth. He continually passed a woman draped in a blanket, walking as well, with no shoes on her feet. Hmmm, more rituals I thought.

I then noticed a woman who looked like a tourist stand to take a photo. It turned my stomach that the photo she was so eager to capture was of a young boy - presumably her son - posed and smiling as he handed a care package to one of the homeless men sitting on a bench – a paper bag with a peanut butter sandwich, chips, and a bottle of water. The man hung his head in shame as they passed him the bag, took the photo and walked away. A sad display acted out by the privileged, I thought.

It occurred to me that when we stop and pay attention, that there seemed to be as many homeless people in that train station as there were travelers. Strikingly, nearly every one of the homeless were Black people - and almost all BLACK MEN. Black men who probably never envisioned this plight for themselves. Black men whose sole possessions were worn on their backs or carried in plastic bags.

I was meant to be in that train station to remind me of what’s important. The privilege I enjoy today is only possessed by a few.

Any one of those black men could have been my brother, my cousin, my Dad. The women amongst them could have easily been my mother. In them, I cannot help but remember what it was like to grow up not knowing privilege. The days of having only beans and rice for dinner. To have a mother who had to work two and sometimes three jobs to support her family. To grow up one step away...

One step away from a major illness…

One step away from not knowing where your next meal is coming from…

One step away from matted hair and filthy clothing with no place to call home…

One step away, with nowhere to go but the local train station…

One step away from hopelessness…walking around draped in a blanket!

One step away from losing your dignity.

There are too many among us who are One Step away...

America, we are better than this!

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Copyright © 2009 by Valerie Rainford. All Rights Reserved