Thursday, February 24, 2011

The bravest people I know

In spite of all of its faults the subway in Boston offers a wide view of the human condition. A man, who looked Chinese, caught my eye on the 70 minute ride home tonight. He was petite, appeared to be in his late 50s, dressed practically and appropriately in brown corduroy trousers that were rolled up at the the ankle, and he had the front jaw of someone who didn't have stellar dental care over his lifetime. Most interesting was that he carried a bundle of six empty soda bottles tightly shrink wrapped in plastic.

As we traveled to the suburbs South of Boston I wondered who he was and what reason he could possibly have for toting around a bundle of empty redeemable bottles. It isn't unusual to see men pushing shopping carts on neighborhood streets, pulling bottles and cans worth $0.05 each from recycling bins, to be redeemed for their daily income. I've seen Chinese women with wide brimmed straw hats walking up the middle of minor highways dragging shopping carts in both hands piled high with bottles in filmy garbage bags. Never have I seen someone carrying six bottles as if it were a lap dog.

"There must be something special about these bottles," I thought to myself, "or this man is so poor the $0.30 he has in his lap is like gold."

Still wondering what story guided this man's life as I poured out of the train station, I espied an elderly African American man selling copies of the Boston Globe to evening commuters. He had no obvious teeth, the hood of his worn and frayed winter jacket pulled up over his head. He wasn't talking, just holding a hand written sign that read "Boston Globe, $1.00." He was a different seller than the white, heavy set but gnome-like man I'd seen selling the paper in the morning.

"I didn't know the Globe had an evening edition," I mused. The dialogue in my head continued. "I've lived in Boston for nearly 18 years, I'm not aware of an evening edition to the paper. Is he just trying to sell papers that no one bought this morning? Sheesh, are things that rough? Are people that desperate or scrappy or stupid?"

Walking towards the next stop on my way home I realized that immigrants and poor people are among the bravest people I know. There is no way I could imagine picking up my life here - whether it was a comfortable one or not - and moving to another country where I might not have (a) documentation legitimizing my presence, (b) money or other resources, and (c) the ability to navigate my way culturally or linguistically. And, if I had the cojones to do this, I don't think I have the creativity or resilience to try everything to make it work so that I could have the better life I was seeking. I don't imagine I'd sell discarded newspapers, or spend all day looking for bottles to earn a meager $0.30. I often see the glass as half empty, and can't imagine having the vision to believe that one day I'd be selling real newspapers rather than old ones I fished out of a recycling bin, or the desperation to try to sell discarded papers because nothing else I was capable seemed to work to put food in my belly.

I pitied the Chinese man I saw on the train and the African American paper vendor. And I also admired them. For their imagined scrappiness and hopefulness. These two men are some of the bravest people I know.

Who are the bravest people you know? Why?

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