I get off the subway early. We, the early morning crowd, share a special bond. We nod to each other, though we don’t know each other’s names, places of work, or families. It’s the “We’re up with the birds” look, a “knowing” look. A “we’re up while everyone else is still asleep waiting for their alarms to ring” look.
I pass by people who I see almost everyday, say hello to Mary who sells the Boston Herald. And today Mary says to me, as she periodically does: “Watch your bag honey”. And I nod and thank her.
And so I watch my bag. Because Mary knows this area well. While I think I know it well, I’ve only been walking this route for a few years. She has lived and worked this area for many more. and she knows the various characters that live life on these streets. She knows who you can trust, and who you need to watch. She knows that poverty and homelessness does not mean you are automatically a good person who has fallen into hard times, does not mean you are automatically trustworthy. She is an astute observer of human nature and knows that the mean come in all sizes and income levels. The sly and the underhanded, the mocking and disrespectful – these are not just categories that the middle-class and rich fall into.
It’s an interesting dilemma for me as a white privileged woman. I observe many white middle-class Americans, I read their essays on the poor and I wish they would talk to Mary. Because their subtext is that the rich are bad and the poor are good, the rich deceptive and the poor honest, the rich rude and the poor kind. But if we’re honest we know that’s not the case.
I have met wealthy people who give graciously and responsively, aware that every penny is from God. I have met poor people who would (and did) kill their last chicken to show you hospitality. I have met rich people who wear arrogance around their necks with their latest Gucci scarves, and poor who mock and yell and rant at all those who pass by.
And so Mary periodically tells me to watch my bag. She tells me who to give to and who not to give to, she tells me who to watch out for and when I should cross the street and go to the other side. And I listen – because Mary knows these streets.
These early morning warnings teach me a couple of life lessons. One is that the worst and the best of humanity are represented in all spheres of society; the second is that in life we need our “Marys” – those people who know where we walk and can help us discern true and false, can help us walk in the ‘good’ way, the wise way.
Mary’s early morning warning made me think of one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It’s a verse that gives instruction from the prophet Jeremiah:
Stand at the crossroads and look; Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is – and walk in it.~ Jeremiah 6:16a
So on this early morning, just as I chose to watch my bag, I will choose to ask where the good way is – and walk in it.