Each morning on my walk to work, I am confronted by many things. Blasting horns and sirens as the Duck Tour Bus lurches into the right lane for a police car, or a fire truck, or an ambulance that comes sailing around the corner of Washington Street headed southwest. People without homes or anyone’s second thought shake McDonald’s cups full of quarters and dimes, wishing us a good day as we pass by without eye-contact. The interns and professionals of the Financial District swarm in great herds of navy, red, and black, pressing on towards their high offices, heads deep in their smart phones, ear buds in, podcasts on. Children and dazed tourists dripping in sunscreen shuffle closely behind an aging man in colonial garb with a slight Boston accent. “This is the only place in the world,” he points to Beantown Pub across the street, “where you can grab a cold Samuel Adams,” he sweeps his arm over to the centuries-old cemetery on his right, “next to a cold Samuel Adams.” The bells in Park Street Church clang on and on.
And then, the resounding slap of two hands, and a bellowing voice echoes out across it all from the corner of Tremont and Bromfield. “IT’S ALMOST FRIDAY EVERYBODY! LET’S GO!”
Living in an urban environment can slowly draw the life from you in ways you may not expect or even see until you look up. Staying in the dorms on 10 West Street, steps from Downtown Crossing and less than a block from the Boston Commons, I have rarely felt myself or my peers truly relax. Wake up, go to work, come home, exercise, eat, shower, if I want to go outside now I should bring a friend, drunk twenty-somethings shouting in the street, more sirens, the window cleaners had their large-soled shoes slamming against my window this morning at 8am, no sir I am so sorry I am not carrying any cash, gee I’m a horrible person, group reflection time, group dinner, group excursion. All this is chaotic and beautiful in the way that experiencing a different environment can be beautiful. But it’s hard to take a breath.
I feel myself responding to the homelessness, racial segregation, incredibly visible socioeconomic disparities, and overall contradicting culture of this city that is so touted for its progressiveness, in a very cynical and unproductive way. I now automatically question the social injustices that lie behind any situation or conversation or word out of my mouth, without being able to conjure up even a whisper of a solution. Everything feels tainted and the boundaries of what I know to be wrong about our world and the way we live in it continue to expand and disorient me. It seems futile. I feel powerless. And then I walk to work in the morning.
My head is down like everyone else’s, fiddling self-consciously with my watch or my sleeves. And then someone says, “Hey now, it’s almost the weekend! We can do this!” Standing squarely in the middle of the sidewalk is a man with the biggest carefree grin I have ever seen. He throws out his arm for a high-five as I pass, and I break from my stupor, subconsciously responding to his gesture. He beams warmly, and turns his head to the next passerby. I stopped in the middle of the current of suits and noise and stared back at him a few feet behind me. Tone unwavering, he offered high-fives and low-fives and fist bumps and hand-shakes to everyone who walked past. He had no sign and nothing to sell or espouse. From where I was standing, I could see his reason for being here. Faces seemed to literally light up as they came past him. They looked up from their phones, from the ground and for a few beats they would simply smile to themselves. I was smiling, too.
That man is there almost every single day, same time, same place. His energy never wavers and he seems so truly overjoyed by any person who comes his way. I do not think that the reasons he does this are even truly significant to me; it’s what he is doing for others. This interrupting of our human, urban flow reminds us that it is okay to struggle and it is okay to be frustrated or feel lost, because being there for each other is powerful enough to make even a little bit of a difference.
I am one person, and the largeness of the issues in this country are not going to be solved by my dwelling on them. “Solving” does not seem like the word for it either — the movement for social justice and equity is a process, and it will always be a process. All I can do is find the best way I can make a contribution. Perhaps giving out high-fives on the sidewalk is very small, and perhaps in reality, it may not affect others the way it affects me. This man reminded me that it doesn’t have to seem hopeless — that while I am thinking on the larger-scale ways my non-profit organization, or my future career could influence change for the better, I must also consider how I carry myself and be with others from day-to-day. It may just have been a high-five, but these little things matter too.