Subway Tokens of Appreciation
Riding a New York City subway, I had an experience. A man in his mid-thirties, very pale, wearing a plastic hospital bracelet, was moving from one car to another confronting passengers with a paper cup.
"Hi. I'm sorry to bother you, my name is Mike."
I thought to myself, "Oh, no. Another sad story." Then he continued. "I was just released from St. Mary's Hospital today, I have AIDS. I have no place to live, I have no where to go, and I really need help...."
His voice choked with emotion, his eyes welled up with tears, and so did mine. I was moved because I have lost so many friends to AIDS. I reached into my wallet and gave the man five dollars. I never do that, but this man got to me.
Even though I've worked in a foster care agency for 20 years. I hadn't let my feelings to take over like that for a long time. It made me realize that most of the time at work I worry about paperwork being completed or whether the rules had been followed — not about the people involved. That realization made me sad.
Like so many of us who grew up in the Sixties, I got into this work because I thought that helping people made the world a better place. I still believe that. Allowing myself to become unfeeling was a defense to shield myself from the pain that many youth workers see every day, I know.
But it was troubling to have been brought up short by the man with AIDS; to perceive the extent to which the numbing of my emotions had compromised my own humanity.
Whenever I tell people what I do they usually say, "Oh, that must be so rewarding." Most times I think, "not always." While the work we do is worthwhile, on an everyday basis it is not especially gratifying, yet there are moments.
The other evening I entered the C train at 59th Street. I immediately became absorbed in a book when I heard a voice say, "Gary is that you?" I looked up, and saw the face of a young man whom it took me a moment to place. Finally, I said, "Jimmy, how are you doing?"
It had been seven years since I had seen him last at Green Chimneys Children's Services. He told me that he was living in his own apartment and had just celebrated his 22nd birthday. Jimmy was one of the most difficult kids that I had ever worked with, and I hadn't forgotten him. As we talked he said, "You know I made a lot of mistakes when I was at Green Chimneys. I made even more mistakes when I left. I had a big drug problem, but I went to rehab for 19 months and I'm doing great now. I've been clean for over two years. I have two jobs, I'm supporting myself and I have a really nice girlfriend."
To be honest, he was doing much better than I ever would have predicted. Indeed, I've often talked about him over the years precisely because he was so difficult. But it was Jimmy's next comment that will stay with me now:
"Gary, even though I was a real pain when I lived at Green Chimneys, I want you and any of the other staff who are still there, to know that I really did learn from all of you. Some days when I was really down, I remembered what you all told me and it really helped me. And I'm not just saying that, I really mean it."
It was a "reward" I'll carry around for awhile.
Gary Mollon, DSW, is an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work.
Mollon, Gary. "Subway Tokens of Appreciation." Youth Today, November/December 1995, p. 46.
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