On a very cold night I was riding home from work on my daily commute on the uptown four train in the city. Near my last stop I heard a voice asking for money and looked up. It was a white man wearing a sweat shirt in his late 20s making a speech as I so often hear on the trains. He was insufficiently dressed for this cold snap and had the looks and cadence of a substance abuser. This brought out the New York cynic in me. Every day people get on the train asking for money. I tend to give food like a granola bar when I am carrying one because I know that its not going to substance abuse. But this was a day I didn’t have one. I looked back down at the paper I was reading. I heard him tell everyone he was a felon just out of prison having a hard time making ends meet. He said he was just trying to stay on the right side of the law but needed money to buy food and a coat in this extremely frigid weather.
The lady sitting next to me gave him a dollar. To my right I noticed a man leaning against a pole in the center of the subway car reaching in his pockets fumbling. He was a handsome well dressed Hispanic man also in his 20s with a smart phone in his hand. As he was going through his pockets, the other man started walking away and he called out to him to come back. I figured that he had gotten some change from his pocket that he was about to give to this man. As the man returned, the man leaning up against the pole took off his coat and gave it to him. The man had been reaching in his pockets to empty them so he could give his coat away.
The train suddenly became silent as we all realized that we had witnessed something quite rare and exceptional. “You need it more than me,” was all he said as he handed over the new coat. The man put on the coat over his sweat shirt, nodded, and left. After he was off the train, the other man who was now coatless on the cold train said, “It’s not about whether he was telling the truth or not. It’s about who you are.”
Everyone there was sitting in a stunned silence reflecting on what just happened. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and I can tell you that it was pretty overwhelming and emotional. You could see that on everyone’s face. This was a selfless act. No one on the train knew him. He was traveling alone like most of the rest of us, so we were aware he wasn’t doing this to show off. It was genuine. This was a man who saw someone in trouble and acted on it while ignoring the consequences.
As he reached his stop I got up and shook his hand and asked him his name. “Felix,” he said. “I’m going to be a pastor and set up my own congregation in the South.” I smiled.
When I reached my stop and walked away in my warm winter coat I couldn’t help but think about what he just did. I’ll never know if the man who got the coat was telling the truth or not. Whether he would wear it or pawn it. It’s New York and hustling is an art here. But I do know that the act of giving up the coat off your back in frigid weather to help a stranger deserves huge respect. I wish I could have captured it on video and posted it so that Felix could have received the recognition he deserved. I’m sure that if I had asked Felix, he would have said that the act of giving was all the recognition he could ever want. He was something special. This was a true hero.