Looking Left and Right As We Round The Corner…
A few weeks ago I was walking on a beautiful Thursday through Central Park to where our Columbia class is this semester, in the tower of Riverside Church. I had spent about 45 minutes on the phone while traversing the beauty of the park talking to a longtime friend and colleague, Mandy Antoniacci, who almost inexplicably was having her fourth and fifth spinal surgeries the next few days. If you knew Mandy, someone who was all about healthy living, fitness, and community, you would be stunned to hear about the trails she has gone through physically in the past three years, but as always she was hopeful that these surgeries…which came from a congenital spine defect she had never known about…would finally, finally lead her back to the physical health to match her mental well being. Ironically she thanked me for listening as she was prepping for yet another mental battle of recovery (she did text me on Thanksgiving just to say she was on the other side of the surgery now as well).
So that was step one. Lucky I am.
Then as I came up Broadway a block from Riverside, about to rise in the tower of the most beautiful church in New York, I heard a small voice, the one you see and hear in big cities but usually keep going past. It said “Can you help me get something to eat.” I saw a man sitting by the steps on 120th and Broadway with his bags, behind a bus shelter and we made brief eye contact but I kept going. Too busy for another homeless request. Then I turned the corner on 120th.
And stopped and went back.
First I gave him a few dollars, a simple act of kindness right, makes me feel better? But what he said to me was the gift for me. He said not thank you or bless you. He said “I’m sorry to ask you for this.” I was stunned. But I turned and left and went around the corner.
And stopped and went back again.
I had a $25 Dunkin Donuts gift card in my bag and gave it to him again. And I asked him his name. He said his name was Sam and he was from Jamaica but grew up in Ridgewood, Queens and he lived in a Shelter off of 125th Street. He was sad to be homeless but had had some issues, lost a job and didn’t want to ask family for money, and he hoped even at 60, he could get back on his feet with a small job in 2022, For now, he was just hungry and wanted to get some pasta…and now he smile. “With your gift Mr. Joe, I can have breakfast a few days as well.”
His story reminded me of one Isiah Thomas always used to tell us when we were with the Knicks. The worst pain he had as a child was that of hunger. Hunger makes you feel listless and unimportant. So maybe I was able to give Sam a boost a bit, but maybe more importantly his boost was a reminder for me of a few things as I turned, 58.
First. Little things matter, even when you don’t think they do. The impact you have is a pebble in a pond.
Second. The randomness of showing up, something we have missed, is incredibly important and powerful. If I didn’t decide to walk, if I didn’t check in on Mandy, if I went a different route to class, if my class wasn’t in Riverside Church, maybe I never cross paths with Sam. And maybe he doesn’t give me the reminder of what we can do can have a little impact every day.
I have looked for Sam each of the last few Thursdays and he hasn’t been in the spot again. Maybe he won’t be. But I do think of Sam every few days as a reminder of all those things we need to do to keep the earth moving around the sun in a positive way.
Oh and part two of all this. So I’m 58 now, and a colleague asked me about when I’m retiring.
To do what?
In the past month, as we get back to where we are going again, I have been lucky enough to get out and about and connect, and reconnect with some amazing folks, in person! That, and the students we get to work with, long with those around me on a constant basis, have given me the chance again to get really thrilled about the path ahead. One that is not smooth or easy, but one which can hold such great surprises if we just look and listen.
Speaking of looking and listening, I was reminded not once, but three times recently about the value of getting up there a bit, but having a youthful and curious outlook combined with the ability of having perspective.
All three involved some of the best storytellers on the planet, three slightly older or mature rockers. Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Dave Grohl.
First was Bruce, who on a CBS Sunday piece talking about his book and podcast with former president Barack Obama, talked about the value of new friends as you get older. Bruce pointed out that when you are young you build friendships for life that remain in your memory for decades, and if you can stay in touch with the best of them through your journey you are lucky. He then talked about the business of the decades, and how people come and go, and you usually stick to the core of people, but the transient nature of friendship is more tied to family and work vs a bond for life. Then…he said when you get older and maybe things slow just a bit, if you are lucky you have a new path of friendship, and those friends, the ones later in life, may not be a large group, but they have the miles on them that give you the ability to share memories, live through similar experiences good and sometimes bad, and take on this great next stage together.
Then there was Bon Jovi, whose lyrics from the song “Older” reminded me of the value of being comfortable with who you are as things move along, not who you are NOT.
I like the bed I’m sleeping in
It’s just like me, it’s broken in
It’s not old — just older
Like a favorite pair of torn blue jeans
This skin I’m in it’s alright with me
It’s not old — just older
Lastly is Dave Grohl, whose book “The Storyteller” I just finished, and who seems to be popping up more and more in everything from The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to commercials these days. His path from an awkward youth through Nirvana to the Foo Fighters is one fans know, but his personal stories, and his recollection of what the ride has been like, was really interesting to read and learn from. Like Bon Jovi and Bruce, Grohl has some fun insight into this next amazing stage that he is going into, but has the ability to look back and embrace where he is with his family as well.
“Though it only takes a quick look in the mirror to remind me that I’m no longer that little boy with a cheap guitar and a stack of records. Now my reflection bares the chipped teeth of a weathered smile. I see the heavy bags beneath my hooded eyes from decades of jet lag, of sacrificing sleep for another precious hour of life. I see the patches of white within my beard. And I am thankful for all of it.”
So as we head around the corner again, and toward another year-end, thanks to the reflective rockers, and thanks to Sam, for the perspective.
What wonderful gifts we have, if we only embrace them as they come.