Thursday, January 23, 2014

Down in the Tube Station At Midnight (or anywhere, anytime of day)

Every so often, I have a guest commentator on my blog. Today, my guest is my husband, Rick Dougherty. At the dinner table, Rick related the story you are about to read. I felt it was vital and important; a story that needs to be shared and thought about deeply. This is a story about people in the Bay Area, about homelessness, about addiction, about suffering. It is also a story about intuition, compassion and engagement. I hope you will take this story to heart.


I was coming home from work in San Francisco today, heading down the escalator to the BART station, and noticed a young man in a grey hoody and jeans standing near the turnstile. His backpack lay against the column behind him and, as people walked past to head down to the trains, he was asking for fifty cents.

Normally I would have walked past, but something about him caught my attention. He had a very gentle demeanor, a soft voice and spoke very well. He was very thin but didn’t seem to be ill or worn like so many of the homeless do. I had taken this all in as I put my ticket into the slot and walked through the stile, and was about to move on but instead, just out of curiosity, I turned back and asked him where he was going. For a moment he looked a little puzzled, so I said that fifty cents wouldn’t take him very far. Then he gave a slight smile and a conversation ensued that moved me deeply.

He told me he was just trying to get enough for something to eat, and when I asked him where he lived he said he was from Danville but hadn’t been home in three years. He had been sleeping on benches at the airport along with many other homeless people. The police would walk past them every night on their way to eat but so far didn’t seem interested in them. I asked why he didn’t go back to his parents and he said that they had thrown him out of the house because he had become hooked on heroine.

Before it all fell apart, he had seemed to have a great life in store. He loved baseball and was a great pitcher, a lefty with a 90 mph fastball, and had received a full scholarship at St. Mary’s. But at the end of his sophomore year a teammate saw him shooting up at a party, and when the news got out, he was not only off the team but was expelled from the school.

He said that in the past three years he had overdosed eight times and that each time the medical team had been able to revive him, the last couple of times only barely. You’d think having gone through that he would have learned his lesson, he said, but within half an hour of being released he was out looking for his next fix.

I told him my own family had been riddled with alcoholics and I had learned that the only person who can save an alcoholic, or an addict of any kind, is themselves, so there was nothing I could do for any of those family members but walk away. I said that it was because of that experience that I was reluctant to give him any money. To my surprise he said, “No, don’t give me any money. I’ll just go buy heroine with it.”

I asked if he had looked into any treatment programs that could help him, and he said that he didn’t think he could make it through the twelve-to-fifteen month programs. But if he didn’t even try to grab onto a rescue line, I replied, the there was no chance at all that he could change his fate. But if he took that very first step, he might begin to feel the confidence that he could control his life and could regain the determination to see it through and pull himself back up on his feet.

He shook his head again and said he wasn’t sure he could do it. I told him that in the end there were parts of him trying to run his life, his body and his mind, and that he would have to decide which one would run it in the end.

He nodded solemnly, as did I. I wished him well and we shook hands. Then I headed down to the trains.


This is a simplified version of the story from the way it was told at our dinner table, but that is the whole story.

There are a great many things that could be said about the story you have read, but the one aspect I want to draw your attention to has to do with engagement

I know that I have had similar encounters with people, over the years--people who were, for all intents and purposes, struggling to deal with something. Who knows what it was that made Rick turn back? I can only think there is some sort of intuition involved. 

We will never know if anything Rick had to say to this young man will have a lasting impact (he has survived overdosing eight times, but cats only have nine lives), but I cannot help but feel that when we follow the intuition that tells us to engage,--that it is not only okay, but we need to engage--this opens a pathway for positive change.

In your dark night, whose face was it that made you smile? Whose warm hand touched yours? Whose kind word or funny joke? How was the darkness dispelled? What unexpected encounter changed your life

When you pass people huddled on the street or in the tube station or in the airport, what is it that will make you talk to one of them? Are you tethered to a virtual muffler, or are you tuned to what is happening around you?

Whose life might you unknowingly influence for the better?

One last thought: We shall all be changed, of that there is no doubt. If we shall all be changed, let it be through compassionate, caring engagement.