After I left the gym late one evening and rushed to the bus stop, I saw a couple who looked like refugees. I recognized my downtrodden literate stoner acquaintance (he always reminds me of a spaced-out Adam Sandler) sitting crunched up against a store front. He nodded at me. Next to him was someone whom I had never seen before: an emaciated woman surrounded by some empty wine bottles. Without warning, she scooted towards me. Her boozy breath was overpowering. I was anxious to get to the bus stop before midnight, but I didn’t want to be rude; so I remained where I was.
Then the stoner (as he always does) asked me about the crime novel I was reading. I gave him a short summary of City of the Lost, a book about a sanctuary village in the Yukon. Slurring his words, he replied “That’s cool, man.” Then the raspy-voiced woman thrust at me her favorite novel about an array of avenging superheroes, making sure that I read the cover blurb. When I did so and returned the book, she squirreled it away and stuck out her pock-marked hand for me to grasp. Not wanting to offend her, but a little leery at the same time (for I had never been touched by such a physically uncouth person before), I shook hands with her. Ever so slowly, she let go of me. I said goodbye and hurried away.
Because of my unplanned tete a tete with the street people, I may well have missed one of the infrequently scheduled buses that late at night, but I hoped that one would soon arrive. As I approached the bus stop, I noticed a stream of elegantly-dressed females parading next to me. I, on the other hand, sported an old muscle shirt and baggy exercise shorts. At the head of the caravan was a spiffy, stiff-necked bearded man wearing a black suit: a dark kippur was firmly attached to his head, and white-fringed tzitzit were hanging from his waist, two tell-tale signs that he was Jewish. I exuberantly greeted him with a Shalom Aleichem. He gave me a perfunctory glance and then mumbled that he was a Rabbi. Undeterred by his lukewarm response, I asked him if he lived in Hawaii. While he was intently moving along, he brusquely said that he and his family were visiting. I would have liked to have spoken more with him and his retinue; but the stoplight changed, and they strode across the intersection. In the meantime, my bus came.
Then I had an epiphany. The self-contained Orthodox had no time to spend on his inferior (after all, I was attired as a secular Jew), just as I (a retired professor) preferred not to interrupt my schedule by fraternizing with the down-and-outs who congregate along the route I take to and from various bus stops.
Wanting to avoid someone whom you feel unjustifiably superior to (a non-threatening person who wants to converse with you) may perhaps be normal enough, but it erodes our humanity. I have to do better. It’s a mitzvah (a good deed) to engage people who genuinely want to reach out to me—no matter how uncomfortable I may initially feel.
Missing the bus is not a tragedy: missing the mark is.