I get off the subway somewhere in Queens. I am here to meet friends for a quiz night in a bar nearby, a New York evening in September when the city is still warm from the day but the air is cooling with autumn. The nights feel between things: the same way the day held onto its June warmth, the darkness exhales the promise of leaves falling.
I walk out of the subway entrance, and a powerful feeling overwhelms me of the last time I was here. There is a “juvenile delinquent” NSP around the corner, a non-secure placement. “Non-secure” a euphemism for you-cannot-leave, a house they keep filled with teenagers on lock-down because they stole, or they got in a fight, or they trespassed in an abandoned building. It is a place they keep kids who grow up in the wrong part of town with parents who don’t want to, or can’t afford to, take them home. But the kid who was arrested for stealing, she had no money to afford food, even though she made hundreds of dollars being sold for sex every night. The kid who was arrested for assault, she was drugged up and caught beating an “unruly” girl because her pimp made her. The kid caught for trespassing, she was in that abandoned building because that’s where “her boyfriend” kept her in between selling her out. The police burst in and decided “criminal.”
I’m standing before a judge in a courthouse in one of the boroughs, saying, “Your honor, she would like to receive services.” Her mother is saying, “I can’t control her. I don’t want to take her.” The judge says, “I can’t let her go.” I visit her for months in the NSP, and she is shy every time. It is hard to believe she did anything but want to be loved.
The last time I was in this neighborhood, I was walking out of a building after saying goodbye. Goodbye, child, I’m going where my life will take me. These children were always braver than my own heart: they didn’t cry or fight me for walking away. While I cried and hated myself, I quit my job. The last time I was here, I was just another tired social worker with a caseload bigger than I could love.
But as I am coming out of the subway entrance to the street level where the air is filled with that between-summer-and-fall smell, I do not remember how tired I was then. I do not remember being on-call for crisis management twenty-four / seven. I do not enumerate the hours that I spent trying to save dozens and dozens of traumatized teenagers from a system built to destroy them. I am remembering only how she needed me. The shy girl in the NSP in Queens didn’t just care if I showed up but needed me to. All I had to do to earn her trust was to just keep showing up and to hold her heart and try to protect her.
Then, I am remembering the Monday after Memorial Day in 2014 when I showed up to another NSP to visit one of my most charismatic clients. That day, she was reserved. When I arrived, she asked me why I did not come the week before for our usual Monday appointment. I reminded her it was Memorial Day. “I thought I let you know that I wouldn’t be there, and I called the staff to make sure to remind you.” She nodded. She said, “I forgot. I wanted to get Chinese for your visit, and I asked the staff to order me some Chinese. I ordered your favorite. Then you didn’t come.” My heart broke. She asked the staff to order her Chinese, and she ordered it for me. Before, I’d brought her some of her favorite meals, and candy bars, and notepads but never had this happened, where we ate not her but my favorite meal. As my heart broke, I apologized. Apologies are small comfort. I try to say something more: “I hope you still enjoyed the food.” She replies, “No, I just threw it away.” I saw her, in my mind, throwing away the cooling Chinese into one of those large, gray garbage bins with the large black bags, the ones they keep in homes filled with the messes of unruly teenagers. It’s hard to be needed and to be unable to deliver in a way that brings comfort. Love doesn’t go on holiday. Caring for people doesn’t rest. Hearts shouldn’t take a break.
After I get off at the subway stop in Queens years later, I walk filled with the memories of my children, the ones I said goodbye to. The people around me spill from restaurants. I go to the bar I got off to go to anyway. Sometimes it is so hard how life keeps going. It is hard to think of living your life without the people who, at one point, needed you. And that “needing” feeling was real. Most of all, I miss showing up for people. I miss being there and being wanted to be there. If I were to go back to those days, I might still leave, but also I might not.
After I go home, try to think of instances in the past two years where I’ve really felt that I helped someone, in a tangible way. I can only think of two. Yet, these instances feel paltry for me. I miss “being there” full-time. I wonder how to make my own life feel meaningful again. How do I take my heart off “break” mode?
Earlier, at my home stop in the subway in another part of Queens, an old man is sweating in the entrance. I see him often with the same cardboard sign: “Please help, homeless, sick.” Today, he looks particularly wretched, pained, and sad. I drop the only cash I have in my wallet into his jar and keep going. He hardly reacts, but I don’t look back. The next time I see him, he looks better. He has a fresh water bottle and a sandwich. Someone else has stopped. There are a couple bills in his jar. I wonder if the small thing I did helped. Probably not in any meaningful way, but it did something for me to see him looking less sad.
People talk about that: how doing good feels good. But, as I learned from being a social worker, if you really go for it, doing good can be costly, emotionally and financially. It can put you out, tax you, and tire you. But I’m learning, it only is difficult as long as I am thinking about the loss or deficit or inconvenience it is causing me. And nothing hurts as bad as doing nothing at all.
Sometimes I need to remember that giving of myself and not of my excess (the giving I do when it inconveniences me or when I am tired or busy or running low on cash), bring the most meaning and joy, if not to others than to myself. To give the most trivial of examples, in June, I had an eight-hour flight from Paris to New York. I lucked into a beautiful window seat with extra legroom. It was one of those seats at the beginning of the economy section with no one in front of me. I sat beside a teenager who used a wheelchair. Shortly after settling into my seat the flight attendant comes over and tells me the father is wondering if he can come sit with his son, who can’t sit anywhere else because of his disability. I immediately say, “Yes! Of course!” No brainer.
Then, I am put in the last row, a cramped hall seat by the bathrooms. The kind of seat where people are in and out of the door by your head the entire flight, the one that gets served last for meals and drinks, the one where you listen to the flight attendants chatter at their station. I feel annoyed and think, maybe I should have said no. As I was sitting there thinking about how my flight would be, in this seat, I was frustrated at the change. I thought: this is awful. Then I thought: why is this awful? I did the right thing, didn’t I? Then, I thought about that boy instead. I thought about him sitting next to his father for eight hours, chatting with him, feeling happy to have that flight with his dad and the fact that he didn’t have a choice of where to sit. And I felt overwhelmed thinking about him and his father, so much that I sat in my back row seat and cried. I felt love and gratitude and joy. In the end, doing good always does feel good.
As I move forward in my life, I want to remember that there is no reason to fill my life with excuses for caring. Those excuses sound like, I am too tired, I am too busy, I am too (whatever). We all sit and think of reasons to exonerate ourselves from helping (“I paid for this seat so I should sit here;” “I worked hard for my money but that person doesn’t;” “I will use my cash for good things but that person will just use it for drugs and alcohol;” “that child is a criminal”). I want to help, so I will find new ways to do so. I will never assume money or privilege is better handled in my own hands. I will not think so highly of myself. I know I am one misstep, one car accident, one house fire, one bad parent away from their shoes. Everything I have is a blessing, but it only feels like a blessing when I share it and see that same blessing in the light of others’ eyes.