Looking into the big-city fishbowl: An outsider’s view of New York City

I boarded a plane to New York last weekend with some friends for a conference regarding human rights and other charitable issues. And, as I scanned my overpriced paper boarding pass, I remember thinking first that catching a plane at 4-something in the morning is just insane, and second that I had never felt more unattractive in the entirety of my life.

No, not really, I was much too tired to think about the way I looked. But I did think about what the city would look like with its people fast-walking down the city sidewalks in fashion. A tune of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Frank Sanatra’s “New York, New York,” and whatever Alicia Keys’ “Streets of New York” tune played over in my head and I dozed off to sleep.

When I opened my eyes, reality hit. We stepped off of the subway at 103rd and Broadway to see rats running along the arsenic-infested rail tracks and homeless people shuffling about, most barely able to walk. The fast-walking people were more like zombies in a self-absorbed comas, and the clothes they were wearing looked less like fashion and more like something from the Capitol out of the “Hunger Games” series. Or, better, a very sexualized circus.

This I found particularly ironic, as back in Duhawk Nation, poultry young and old were celebrating the Hunger Games-themed Homecoming. Miles away, though, we were seeing the real deal, what that series really represents: a material-torn country and world. A place where we see the system breaking down everywhere and the damnable class struggle that consequently governs our lives, but are too petrified of finishing last to take a time-out from climbing over each other in the socio-economic ladder to actually stop this twisted transistor (wait, isn’t that a Korn album? I don’t know).

As a friend explained it to me, “I was looking into the fish bowl; those people have never been out of the fishbowl,” she said. “They are totally desensitized; they don’t even know it’s happening all around them.”

So for this reason, I hope that my observations don’t come from a place of judgment on people, but rather what their behavior represents: a commodified sense of success in which owning expensive plastics and textiles signify that we’ve ‘made it’ somehow.

For instance, I met a girl whose mother was a Palestinian woman who barely made it out of Palestine alive. My new friend was explaining this to me in one breath, and in the next was showing me her Dolce & Gabbana glasses, Gucci purse and Coach blazer; holding them up proudly as trophies as if to show that her family had moved on. She hadn’t said it, but I knew, and I didn’t know which part of our conversation made me more sad.

Or, after talking to a lady on the subway about how much I missed grass, then seeing a shoeless, clearly very poor, black man saying ‘God bless you all, I need shoes, please help,’ over and over again. Then, in the next minute, trying to maintain my footing as the crowd pushed out of the train into the stores of Time Square, where they would spend hundreds of dollars on shoes they’d nearly trampled each other for.

People looked around at me as if saying ‘shop or get the hell of my way, kid,’ but I couldn’t do anything, or say anything, because I had a lump in my throat the size of the Big Apple itself. But don’t get me wrong, I stand on no moral high ground. After all, I like to shop as much as the next person. But, there was no way that I could look that man in the face and pretend that he was a mere statistic, move on and buy a sixth pair of shoes when he had none. And, even if he hadn’t used it to buy shoes (as many of my friends suggested, he was probably just looking for drug money), didn’t he at least represent a real person living in poverty in the world?

Certainly shoeless people may strip away their dignity for drugs or alcohol, but the poor do exist. And, as Jesus says, in giving to the poor, we are not participating in any noble act of favor; we are giving to them what is already theirs, but was taken away by injustice.

So, before boarding my plane back I looked around at some ‘I heart NY’ souvenirs, and decided that I did not need to buy a T-shirt to remember my experience in the city that never sleeps; I had already received more than I had paid for.

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