T is for Thankful

        T is for Thankful.  I spent the last few days on vacation in New York.  What a great city.  My parents are both from the Long Island area so we went to New York often when I was little, but I hadn't been back since I was twelve.  My method of traveling is a little different than many others.  Rather than plan a lot and making sure I do this or that, I just like to experience the culture and try to get a feel for what it is like to live where I'm visiting.  It's not the most efficient way to travel and usually leaves me wondering if I could have made a little more of the the trip, but I like to put myself in the shoes of the people.  One aspect of my method that I like is it forces me to be flexible and roll with the punches (a challenge for me in a largely rigid life).  Inevitably, some of my decisions lead me to a bad meal, getting lost, or a bad night out.  Rather than dwell on it, I chalk it up to the experience.  Maybe it's the Growth Mindset Method of Traveling (patent pending).  Maybe I just need to plan a little better.  Regardless, it was a great trip.  The subway system and walking is a different experience.  It can be a little overwhelming at first, but once you know where you're going it is pretty cool.  Actually I'm not sure if I ever got to that point.  I am horrible with directions and had to ask early and often.  The people were very nice and willing to help.  This goes against the stereotype of New Yorkers being rude.  I didn't find that to be the case at all, especially the everyday people.  They do their own thing and largely keep to themselves, but if approached the love for sharing what their city has to offer is clear.  The diversity of people is something I enjoyed.  Walking down the street you would hear multiple languages and see lots of different types of restaurants, but there is still the comfort of knowing most people speaking English.  While many of my interactions were with very bright, successful people who had "made it" in the city, the most powerful experience was with someone on the other end of the spectrum.  The adventure took place on my last afternoon and provided a great reminder of how much we have to be thankful for.  I'd like to share it.

        On that last afternoon I wanted to keep things low key.  Part of this was because my goal was to leave very early on Saturday morning to avoid the traffic.  Part of it was due to a little overindulgence on New Year's Eve.  Regardless, I stuck around the Brooklyn area surrounding my hotel.  I went for a walk later in the afternoon looking for something easy for dinner.  This led me down a street I hadn't gone on yet.  About a hundred feet away there was someone coming from the opposite direction.  He had a hunched over, limping walk, and my guess was he was homeless.  I contemplated walking in a route that would avoid the awkward, inevitable question of whether I had money or not.  People have different feelings about how to handle these situations.  Some say to ignore the people completely, some say to be mean, and some kind of pick and choose where they help.  For whatever reason, I decided to keep going in the same direction.  Sure enough, the young man did stop to talk to me.  "Excuse me sir, I hate to bother you, but could you help me get some food?"  There was a desperation in his voice that struck me.  That, coupled with the fact he directly mentioned food made me want to help.  I was already going to get some food anyway so I asked if he wanted to join me.  He quickly agreed, and we started walking.  We exchanged names (his was Prince) and looked for somewhere to eat.  "Anything good around here?" I asked and quickly felt bad when it was clear he had no clue.  As much as I wanted to help him out, there certainly was some trepidation about just how far I wanted to walk with him with the lack of people in the area and uncertainty of who I was talking with.  At the end of the block was a corner spot with some Crispy, Crunchy Chicken and a variety of other food.  There would be no "best burger in your life" here, but it'd do.

        Prince and I ordered burgers and fries and had a seat to wait.  I asked a question or two, and Prince very openly started telling me his story.  The limp was due to a prosthetic foot because of a birth defect.  His Mom had told the doctor to just cut off his foot rather than pursue other possible chances.  Prince said she saw the opportunity for a check and saw no problem with profiting from the baby she had considered aborting.  Apparently, the government provides assistance for people born with disabilities.  This was something I had no knowledge of.  Prince, who was 19 but looked like he was in his mid-to late twenties probably because of the wear and tear of a life largely on the streets, had clearly been through a lot.  I asked him about school.  He said he'd had issues with changing schools and credit transfers so rather than pursue other options his mom took him out.  While in school, Prince was in ED (emotionally disabled) classes for a significant part of the day.  He told me he thought schools were way to eager to label kids with disabilities and that it came with the stigma of "being dumb."  I told him about the challenges of completely understanding every kid's background and disabilities in teaching.

        Prince had taken the GED.  He passed the math portion easily and failed the reading section by a couple of points.  He wanted to retake the test, but his mom would not pay for him to do so.  Prince told me he was in the process of trying to take classes to help prepare for the test but was depending on the disability checks to do so.  The disability checks had stopped coming because his mom was spending the money on herself rather than him.  The government makes recipients provide receipts to show how the money is being spent, and his mom did not do so.  Needless to say, Prince's Mom was not growing on me.  His entire family is afraid of her to the point that they don't even want her to know where they live.  Because of that, Prince hadn't seen his dad in quite some time and had no idea where his older brother was.  The mom had kicked him out several times at a variety of ages, and he said he'd grown up mostly in the streets.  Prince described his Mom's treatment of people based on how she felt.  If she woke up in a bad mood, she was going to treat he and his siblings poorly regardless.  Prince was an easy target as a disabled child who she hadn't really wanted in the first place.  Among other things, she'd thrown a frozen chicken at his head when he was little.  He'd dodged it and was left to wonder what damage it could have done based on the hole left in the wall.  She'd also have Prince's brothers throw his prosthetic foot out the window so he couldn't leave.  Despite this, Prince made it clear he still loved his mom and would never do anything to hurt her.  "Wow", I thought.  Many hate their parents for far less than what Prince's mom had put him through.
          I told Prince I was in town to travel, and he said he wished he had the opportunity to do that.  He'd only left the city twice in his entire life.  One time he went to a basketball game in New Jersey, and another time he'd gone to Philly for a wedding.  Prince asked me what it was like where I am from, and I described some similarities and differences between South Carolina and New York.  I was amazed at his wide-eyed reaction.  It was like I had described a mythical land far, far away.  The realization was made that Prince couldn't just look up places on the internet like you and I.  I wondered if he had ever even used the internet.  We talked a bit more.  Prince described the process of getting the disability checks to give him somewhere to stay.  He wasn't sure what he wanted to do, but I told Prince it was great he had the courage to have plans at all for himself despite all he had been through.  There was a clearly beaten down attitude and dim outlook present in the way Prince talked, but he seemed like a survivor.  We said our goodbye's and both said how we'd enjoyed talking with one another.  I gave him my subway pass for the next couple of days because I didn't need it anymore.  Again, the gratitude he had just for a warm place to be was both amazing and heartbreaking.

        I'm not really sure why I wanted to share the story of Prince.  It certainly isn't to make myself seem like a saint for giving him a five-dollar meal.  What he gave me in our conversation was actually far greater in value.  I think sometimes it is much easier to ignore a group of people or write them off than to actually consider them as human beings with a story.  Prince's was a tragic story.  Some would be quick to say, "Well, if he wanted to do something he would find a way."  I'd challenge you to consider whether that is really the case.  Think back to your upbringing.  We all likely made many mistakes along the way but had our parents to help guide us.  I'm not saying your childhood was/has been perfect, but I'd bet it pales in comparison.  Probably nobody reading this blog has ever had to wonder where their next meal would come from or when the next time their parents would throw them out on the streets.  I found myself wanting to rationalize Prince's situation, but instead I was left wondering how many kids around the country and world had similar stories that seem to have no possible happy ending.  Prince had been handed about as raw a deal as possible in life.  A physical and mental disability, a broken family who didn't return his love, and a lack of opportunity based really entirely on those circumstances.  My hope is Prince will follow through on the appointments he has made to get the checks he deserves and take advantage of the chance to improve his well-being.  I certainly have my doubts, but it is easier to imagine that he will.  I feel certain he will never read this, but I'd like to thank him anyway.  Prince gave me a real-life reminder that extended far beyond any picture or news report could that I have much in the world to be thankful for.  He reminded me that behind the easy to ignore is always a story.  Hopefully sharing his did that for you as well.  Thank you Prince.

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