I first noticed him long ago, but he didn’t start to annoy me until my commute lead me past him every afternoon. He became a landmark for me, so often did he take his post, always in the same uncomfortable, genius position resting on the handrails between the descending escalator and the stairs at the subway station: not quite in your way but maintaining a presence that was not easily ignored.
He had a wizened face with what could have been a wizard’s beard had he not kept it inexplicably well groomed. Deep creases were well established in his forehead, so that they remained even when his expression was characteristically stoic and unexpressive. He looked like he could have been a sailor or a painter, he had that aura of capability and able-bodiedness coupled with a self-assuredness that suggested a man comfortable in his own skin, who knew what he was about even if nobody else did. I might have thought him to be any number of things if it weren’t for the square of cardboard he always had with him: “Seeking Human Kindness,” it proclaimed. He always stood holding it up, transparent ex-coffee cup in his other hand or by his feet, filled to some degree already, testament to the fact that his seeking did not go unrewarded.
The first day I came across him I felt generous. Maybe he’s hungry, or homeless. I gave him five dollars.
And then I saw him a few days later. I gave him a dollar. I did the same the next few times.
But one sunny afternoon, for some reason, I felt a little annoyed. Who was this guy who stood out here day after day, taking money from strangers? He had seemingly made a job out of this! Was I helping him truly, or just enabling him to make this a way of life? Was it moral of me to give him something everyday on my way back from work?
And as I passed him down the escalator, I felt something twist in my stomach. It was something I had read: “Seeking Human Kindness.”