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Volume 2, Issue 1
Spring 2006:

Daybreak in Manhattan

Thomas A. Doty

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Spring; 2(1):a4

Herald Square, NYC
Photographer: Thomas A. Doty
[Larger Image]

There are many variations on the theme of discrimination in modern American life. Those with means — the affluent — may think of poorer citizens in various abstract terms, such as "the homeless" or "street people", "white trash" or "black trash". Branding the less fortunate with derogatory labels allows us to shun them from any meaningful place in society — we merely define them to be outside the realm of our existence.

My own experience delivering printing screens in the Manhattan sweatshop district when I was in my early twenties showed me that these sorts of perceptions don't approach the truth. What I heard and subsequently learned as a child, that which was hyped and reinforced by the media, turned out to be a lie.

This happened many years ago, but to me it still feels like yesterday.

It was tense work maneuvering an eight-ton, six-wheeled delivery truck down a nameless narrow predawn New York City alley. Large dumpsters strewn haphazardly along this dark city canyon cast deep shadows across the hopeless — homeless addicts lying in the gutter. These street people would be shaken from their previous nights' euphoria by this big rumbling truck driven by a rural white boy, a kid who equally misunderstood reality, inequality and prejudice.

I was no stranger to human despair and pain; in my young life I had encountered both. I considered myself a bit more fortunate, if only for the moment. Such a situation might have produced a bad outcome for me, perhaps even generating some gruesome headline in the daily Times — my "fifteen minutes of fame" — not that it would have been particularly noticed.

The company that employed me at the time had given me just enough money to buy fuel for the return trip home, plus a couple bucks for lunch. I didn't have an ATM or credit card back then; the first did not exist, and the second was a luxury I couldn't afford — there was not enough money to fund such accounts.

Imagine my surprise when a person that I had nearly run over as he lay sprawled in the gutter approached me with a wad of bills thrust out in his gloved hand. To me it seemed a strange way to mug a person.

When I refused to accept his "gift", arguing with him over the ownership of the money in his outstretched fist, the man in the street threw the bills at my feet in disgust and walked away, mumbling something I didn't want to hear.

It dawned on me then that the money was the cash that my boss had given to me to finance this Manhattan delivery run. Apparently the roll of bills had fallen out of my pocket when I reached for the keys to unlock the back of the truck at this stop. Had that man been less than honest, I would have been stuck in New York City for many hours, and lost my job too.

In the end it was I who stooped down to retrieve the scattered bills. I looked up to see him making his way down the street in the grey light.

The day broke. I welcomed the light: no longer worried about my safety, fear gave way to relief. And suddenly I realized how wrong I had been to judge another human being on the basis of my limited understanding.

Fear and prejudice had blinded me from seeing an honest man who was only trying to help a scared white boy from rural Pennsylvania. For one brief moment I got to see myself through the eyes of another person, and I was ashamed of what he saw.

That chance encounter some 30 years ago remains indelibly etched in my memory, with lessons to remember for the rest of my life.

Now I'm older, thankfully with more life experiences to better guide my way.

Although we cannot escape our humanity, each of us can learn to recognize the potential for goodness we possess as individual human beings.

So long as we're alive, it's not too late for any of us; if we can only open our eyes.

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