A Veteran’s Day Tale

vetAbout a month ago, I was in New York City. When I was much younger, I lived in the city, and over the years, I’ve had plenty of amazing, surreal, and terrifying experiences in the Big Apple. But something that happened during my most recent trip tops everything.

I was waiting for the subway at the Times Square station, and a street musician was performing Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” Scenes like this are common in New York, and on the subway and subway platforms, most people go into their protective bubble, and try to tune out as much of the world as possible. I, however, had only been back in the city for about three or fours hours, and hadn’t put on my New York force field of protection. That must explain why I noticed the older gentleman, somewhere in his 60s, drop some money into the musician’s guitar case, and go on to have a full emotional meltdown.

The man began to sob uncontrollably. I can’t recall a time that I’ve ever seen a grown man have an emotional breakdown like this in such a public place. And everyone around him was ignoring it—hiding behind the shields that all New Yorkers seem to use to get through the day. The only other person that seemed to notice was an African American man, in a business suit, who was trying to get the musician’s attention. Mr. Business Suit was motioning to the musician, trying to get him to stop singing the song, because he could see—as could I—that it was doing something terrible to the Crying Man. And to describe him as merely the Crying Man doesn’t really begin to convey what this guy was going through.

I kept waiting for someone to say something to the Crying Man. Didn’t anyone else see that he was on the verge of completely falling apart? Didn’t anyone else care?

Finally, after what seemed like hours, but was probably less than a minute, I approached the Crying Man. “Hey, man, are you okay?” I asked.

He looked at me, tears flowing, sobbing uncontrollably, and he shook his head. “No, I’m not,” he said.

“What’s wrong? Can I do anything for you?” I asked.

“I got all this shit inside me. It is killing me, and I don’t know how to get it out,” he said.

“Well, you got to get it out, my man. You can’t keep these things inside. Look at what it’s doing to you,” I said. “Find someone to talk to about it—to take all this shit away from you, so you can stop carrying it.”

“No one gives a fuck about me,” said the man.

“That’s not true,” I said. “I give a fuck about you. I’m standing here, talking to you right now. I’m looking at you, and I’m telling you, whatever it is your carrying, give it to me. Let me take it, so you don’t have to keep it anymore.”

The man looked at me like I was insane. So did Mr. Business Suit, who was watching the entire thing. And then, Crying Man said to me, “I was just a teenager when this song came out—a kid. I didn’t know any better. And the man, he told me all this bullshit about the things I could do, and the difference I could make, and so I went to Vietnam.”

The Crying Man then told me about his experiences in the Vietnam War. Needless to say, this was not what I was expecting, nor was it what I was prepared to hear. But I listened, as the man told me his very sad story. I fought back the tears. I reached out, placed my hand on the man’s shoulder, then I pulled him close and hugged him, because there was nothing—and I mean nothing—that I could say in response.

The Crying Man looked at me, and asked, “Why are you doing this for me?”

“You’re a human being, aren’t you?” I asked. “Your life has some value, doesn’t it?”

He looked at me, as if not sure what to say next. He nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I’m a human being.”

“Well, we all need to be reminded of that from time to time,” I said. “You matter. I matter. We all matter.”

“No one has ever done anything like this for me,” he said.

“Well, I guess I’m not like anyone,” I said.

My train pulled up. I told the Crying Man that I had to go, but wanted to make sure he didn’t need me to stay.

“Thank you,” he said. “You saved me.”

I got on the train and rode away. I never even found out his name.

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