I Cross to the Other Side

At 6:30 in the morning Central Square has already been awake for hours. Stale pools of water with some left over garbage cover the brick side-walk in a low lying area, a result of heavy rains from last week that have not yet evaporated. Pigeons flock to the water enjoying an unexpected pool, loudly arguing about who splashes first.

My husband arrived back from Turkey last night and we talked late into the night resulting in a worthwhile fogginess. So on this Wednesday my mind is buzzing with both the noble and the mundane.

I arrive downtown and I purposely choose to get out on a different side of the subway. Because today I don’t want to see Valerie and know that she is still homeless. Because today I don’t want Donald asking me for spare change.

I am the Priest and the Levi of the Good Samaritan story – I cross to the other side. 

Is it ever okay to cross to the other side? Is it ever okay to purposely choose to avoid the unpleasant? Is it ever okay to ignore disparities?

I don’t think it is, but I do it. I could give all manner of excuses, I could explain myself away, I could tell you that it really doesn’t make a difference. And maybe it doesn’t — but maybe it does.

I cross to the other side because I have no solutions. I cross to the other side because I am tired. I cross to the other side because there is no inn to take people to.

Maybe it’s not about having solutions or an inn. Maybe it’s about just showing up and saying ‘hi’; acknowledging the humanity of another person who struggles. Maybe it’s about early morning solidarity and knowing I share these streets, this neighborhood with the homeless, the crazy, the suits and ties, the little black dress, the vendor, the street musician, the fruit man, the tourist. Maybe it’s about being present among people and proclaiming a faith in the midst of this beautiful, broken world.

But all that comes to me after I cross to the other side. 

What do you do when you cross to the other side? 

Designed to be Dependent


Central Square, Cambridge is a 10 minute walk from our apartment. It’s not a tourist attraction, nor is it the prettiest square that Cambridge has to offer. Central Square is utilitarian. Bus and subway stops are easy to navigate. Several banks, a couple of churches, and all the major chain drug stores dot the streets surrounding the square. Restaurants and coffee shops are in abundance and whether meeting someone for business or pleasure it’s an easy place to gather.

A couple of years ago the Central Square Wendy’s closed. While we rarely frequented this fast-food establishment, known by the red-haired, freckle-faced little girl on the signs, many others did. Large groups gathered near the front of the restaurant — they were regulars.

It was their place to gather.

I thought of this recently as I read an article about a McDonald’s in Queens that was ‘evicting’ a Korean group for over-staying their welcome. The restaurant has a prescribed 20 minute customer dining period and this group was staying for hours at a time. The writer of the article wanted to find out why – why this McDonald’s? Why didn’t they go to the senior center, a place designed to be used by retirees as a gathering space? What did this group, picking this restaurant, have to do with urban space?

This McDonald’s had become a “Naturally Occurring Retirement Community” or a NORC. There were several reasons why this happened. One was just proximity. When questioned all but one said they lived within one or two blocks of the restaurant so they could come without assistance at any time they chose. The second was that this particular McDonald’s had large picture windows, perfect for people watching.

But ultimately – it was all about community and finding a place in the city. 

All this makes me think about community and finding our spaces. We are designed to be dependent on one another, to not live in isolation. This is an undeniable thread in our DNA. So we will search and search to find that community, whether it be at a McDonald’s in Queens or an online chat room. The places and spaces we find may not make sense to outsiders looking in– why this McDonald’s and not a burger king down the road? And some of the communities we find are not healthy, not life-giving. But if questioned, we all have our reasons for why we have picked the community and the space that we pick.

If anything proves our deep longing and search for community it is the results you get when you google “How to find community”. In under a second I got 1,810,000,000 results. My jaw dropped when I saw this. In fact I had to count the zeros.

We want to be welcomed in to a physical space that is close to us, to a place with those who are like us where we can sit together and watch the world outside go by, to a place where time stops and all life makes sense while we’re together.

We are designed to be dependent.

Which leads me to ask these questions: Do you have a “McDonald’s” in your life? A place where you gather for community and friendship? Where do you find community? Do you believe we are designed for dependence? 


Stacy is in Uganda and says this about today’s muffins which are Banana Sour Cream: “Since I’m still in Uganda, once again, I’ve chosen an ingredient that is produced here in abundance, bananas. We’ve been eating them every day and the farm where we are staying grows several types, including ones called Matoki that the Ugandans served cooked and mashed.” Click here for the recipe.

*Image credit: ronfromyork / 123RF Stock Photo. Words added by https://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/

Enhanced by Zemanta

Central Square Walgreens: A Lesson in Humanization

Central Square Walgreens is a city drugstore. As you walk up the stairs coming off the outbound redline you will see it directly to your right. It’s always busy, ever crowded and not particularly clean. The staff are as iconic as the customers with diverse cultures, ages, clothing and personalities the norm.

It is the great equalizer. At Walgreens in Central Square people do not care if you’re a famous Harvard or MIT professor or a homeless person. You could be a doctor that discovered a treatment for a rare cancer or a stay-at-home mom; a barista or a post doc; a nurse or a tatoo artist; no one cares. You are served the same, wait in the same line, and try and get your pictures printed from the same computer. This is one of the reasons I love the city.

While living in the suburbs it mattered to people that our banged up Toyota Camry sat next to their Lexus. It mattered that Aeropostale and Banana Republic were not in our closets and it mattered that we didn’t care. At Walgreens an equalization takes place – a leveling of the playing field. People may try to assume airs and superiority but these are forced to the surface and squashed as quickly as they are assumed.

It was at Walgreens that I made the acquaintance of a Jordanian woman who knew no English. She walked in the store passionately requesting information in Arabic. Blank faces looked her way, and then everyone went back to doing what they had been doing. So the voice got louder. And the staff? They had no time for this woman who was speaking rapid-fire Arabic. Walgreens may be the great equalizer – but only if you know English.

At this point, I, standing at least three aisles away from her and knowing I could understand at least the basics of what she was saying, moved in a bit closer. It was one of those times where in a flash I had to weigh my decision to get involved against the urgency with which I had originally entered the store – in other words, I didn’t want any obstacles in my way between checkout and walking home. And the woman (dare I say it?) was an obstacle. But obstacles that are human have this way of getting into your brain and reminding you that getting involved is sometimes a mandate, not a suggestion.

Her name was Laila and she was frantically asking where the mosque was. Good. I knew and could tell her. But there was more. She wanted a cart to carry her groceries on city streets. She was older and carrying bags was too much for her. In the space of a few minutes I had heard about her daughter and no-good son-in-law; her grandchildren; and the mosque down the street – it’s amazing what you can learn about another person in a short interaction.

We found the cart in the front aisle but when I told her the price she looked dismayed. She took out a ten-dollar bill, held it out to me and began bargaining with me on the price. My Arabic is basic at best and she was persuasive. She kept pushing the ten-dollar bill into my hands, explaining that this was all she had. But there was a problem – I hadn’t set the price, Walgreen’s had. And if we know one thing in America – we don’t bargain. While an art form in some countries, it is simply not done in American retail. I laughed and told her that this would not happen, she would have to pay full price. So she argued some more. I responded that if she was in Jordan, this would work, but in America she would have to pay full price. And she argued more. I had met my match.

It was about this point that it dawned on me that I would be the one paying for the cart; her bargaining had worked, thought not in the way either of us intended. So we moved up toward the check out.

This is where something interesting happened: the staff previously uninterested and annoyed began treating the woman with kindness and respect. I watched in amazement. As I pulled out my debit card to pay for the cart, the staff were no longer annoyed or dismissive, but engaged and attentive. Through one interaction a domino effect began and she was suddenly worth while. She had been humanized, deemed worthy of having someone get involved, someone pay, and in the humanization the attitudes of all observing her changed.

It was a strong lesson to me in the power of actions. Very rarely do I feel like my actions to either get involved, or not get involved, matter. But to the person who needs us, it makes all the difference in the world.

We hugged goodbye, Laila and me, and she walked off with her cart to the mosque. I have never seen her again and my guess is she may not even remember me, but I am reminded of the lesson every time I go to Walgreens.


My Colorful Neighborhood

It’s 8:30 am and I’m a kind of drunk and I want you!” were the words sung to me at Central Square, Cambridge The truth is – It was 7:30, he was drunk, and he didn’t want me! But it brought laughter to my heart and I realize how much I love my colorful neighborhood.

While Harvard Square is full of intellectuals of all ages, brain cells abounding with funky stores,coffee shops, and Out of Town News – Central Square is hardcore life. It is dirtier and grittier with a cross-section of people that defies any stereotype. Recent and older immigrants speaking everything from Amharic and Arabic to Portuguese and Punjabi; every age from infants in strollers to the elderly heading to a community center or the library around the corner; and the sassiest and saltiest homeless people you will ever meet, all converge in Central Square.

If you don’t give money, the homeless population have no problem escorting you to the nearest ATM or looking you up and down with derision and the comment “That’s ok! What goes around comes around!” and you are left feeling cursed.

Maybe the reason I feel so at home in this neighborhood as opposed to Harvard Square with its sophisticated milieu and Kendall Square filled with Geeky MIT students and biotech engineers is that I feel like I am a cross-section of worlds and people. The suburbs stifled me as I felt the need to fit in with beautiful homes and more beautiful people, never quite measuring up to what I perceived as the unspoken expectation. My past of both Pakistan and Egypt didn’t seem important in the suburbs, but in Central Square it feels like my background belongs. Central Square welcomes me with its imperfection and honesty. There is the ability to feel fully alive and authentic, even as I am serenaded by intoxication at 7:30 am.

With burnt orange, brick-red, electric lime, and hot magenta all mixed together in one place, Central square is like a box of crayons that are primary colors – no pastel pinks, light blues, or pale yellows in sight.