A young girl, of no more than nine or ten, is sitting beside her mother on the uptown A train. It is a school day and they are going home. Her brown hair is rolled into a tight topknot, held in place with a pink elastic band. She is wearing a pair of red Skechers with pink laces.
A man gets on the train at Fulton Street. He is young and casually dressed in black: jeans, shoes, buttoned collared shirt. He begins to walk from one end of the car toward the other. It will take him thirty-one steps. He is favoring his right leg.
He speaks clearly and slowly. His left arm is held out, away from his side. “Please,” he says looking from one passenger’s face to another. “I am asking for a dollar, or fifty-cents, or a penny, or anything.”
A tumor, he says, is growing on his wrist. He says it is the size of a golf ball. There is a round swelling on his wrist. He shows it to anyone who will look. Some of the passengers glance at the wrist. Then they turn back to what they had been doing; what they had been looking at before he began to speak and their eyes had been drawn away to look at the tumor.
“My mother,” he says, “died three months ago. She was sixty-three. I am twenty-three. My mother’s name is on the apartment lease and the landlord tells me he won’t let me stay. He is renting it to someone else. Please help me,” he asks, “Please give me whatever you can.”
The train stops at Spring Street. Passengers get off. Others get on. Shoppers with trendy bags. The young man with the tumor on his wrist and the limp in his right leg begins to speak again. Halfway down the aisle, starting again from the beginning. “Please,” he says looking from one passenger to another. “I am asking for a dollar, or fifty-cents, or a penny…” He makes his way toward the end of the car and turns back.
No one has moved to give him anything.
“Thank you,” he says, “from the bottom of my heart. No matter what your color, no matter what religion, your nationality. Thank you.”
The A train is an express going north. At the next stop, Twenty-third Street, the doors open. He leaves the first car and enters the next one. Someone is playing a trumpet on the platform.
An older, weary-eyed man, steps into the car, holding a folded sign, cut from a light brown cardboard box, hand-printed in navy blue marker. He is wearing a Colorado Rockies cap. He does not speak. On the sign he has printed, Please Give Me $5. I Have No Money And I Need To Get Something To Eat. Bless You. He walks slowly, saying not a word, showing the sign and holding out his free hand, toughened, creased and unclean.
The girl with the topknot and the red Skechers has been watching. She reaches into her backpack and takes two quarters out of a zippered purse. Her mother tells her, “You put that money away.”
The young man with the golf ball-sized tumor on his wrist comes back into the car at the end where the girl is sitting with her mother and with the fifty cents in her fist. Her hand is in her lap. Once again, in the same voice, he begins, “Please, I am asking for a dollar, or fifty-cents, or…”
The weary-eyed man with the hand-lettered sign and the Colorado Rockies cap looks at the girl, and at the mother. The young girl in pink raises her hand. Her mother grabs for her arm, flinging and clattering the coins to the floor. They scatter and roll under the legs of the passengers across the aisle. She falls after them, on her hands and her bare skinny knees.
She reaches after the coins, under the seats, around long legs and behind their afternoon shoes. The tired uptown people bend their legs and pick up their feet. Move their bags. The quarters slide away on the slick floor when the car comes to a stop. The mother is fraught. She speaks the girl’s name. Everyone in the car is watching. The girl’s mother loses sight of her daughter. She stands and a woman with an infant takes her seat.
The doors open. It is Thirty-fourth Street. People push their way around the girl leaving the car, and more press their way in.
The weary-eyed man with the hand-lettered sign looks at the girl. He looks to the man in black. He stops.
The young man with a tumor steadies himself beside the girl with the topknot and red Skechers, on her knees, and the two silver coins in her hand. He reaches his hand out to her. She looks up and places the fifty cents in his palm.
He had been there first.
“God bless,” he says to her.