One night at dinner, Jim stood up and announced to Jess, I want to be alone. And he walked out of her life forever. She thought she would marry him. She was devastated. So you can understand why the mere thought of eating the little packs of Mott's Applesauce which he left behind brought her alternately to tears or nausea.
She carried one such container around all day, forgetting to give it away and get it out of her house, out of her home and out of her life. She explained all of this to me last night as we stood at her street corner saying goodnight after a girls' night dinner, holding this applesauce in her hand, gesticulating with it, not sure what to do with it...I help out my hand to take it. Really? She asked...yes, let me be your messenger, let me redeem the applesauce for you. She was grateful and then...suddenly, I had a daunting task...this little applesauce was dripping with Jess' sadness. I needed it to go to a good home, to feed someone, make someone else feel better when this little hockey-puck sized snack treat had made Jess feel so bad! My heart went out to the applesauce. It deserved a better life than it had first encountered. (Hey, many people all over the world had worked hard to make the containers, the apples, the applesauce, pack it, ship it, sell it...just throwing it away was disrespectful to all the time and energy that had gone in to bringing it to that moment.)
Off I went with my mission. Now, I live in NYC and so one might think that the needy people just line the streets. In some neighborhoods, yes. But I was on the upper west side, moments from the Subway platform and heading home to Queens and a subway station just moments away from my front door. What if I could not find someone? Well, as luck (or divine intervention, if you will) would have it, there was a man sitting outside the 72nd street station. The man had a nest of knotted hair, a large shapeless sack, and clothes which matched. I approached. Excuse me, I am wondering if you can help me with something, if you could do me a huge favor. He eyed me, he eyed the applesauce, he eyed me again. Ok, he looked skeptical. I explained about the man leaving the friend and I asked if he could redeem the applesauce. He erupted in to a wide, bright, toothless grin on his dirty, stubled face. He cackeld, ha ha ha, redeem the applesauce. Haha ahahahaha. Sure, sure, I'd love some applesauce. Happily he took it. Happily, I walked away.
Now from here, this post can go in two directions. Direction number one is to talk about redemption and that redeeming something means buying something back from where it is to a better status (redeeming the captives from enslavement to freedom, redeeming the tin can from being trash to a renewable resource, redeeming ourselves from sin to salvation). What is redemption in our lives? And to note, redemption is a totally Christian word. What is a nice Rabbi-type like me doing throwing around such a Jesus-y word like that? We could talk about all of those things for a long long time.
The other way I can go is to tell you what happened next once I got on the train.
I felt good about the applesauce and so I went on my way. I got on the express train to Times Square, switched to the Queens-bound N and headed to Astoria. When I stepped on to the train, I was almost knocked over by the overwhelming stench of dirty human being. I looked to my right when I entered the train and man who looked very similar to the one to whom I had just awarded an applesauce was sitting slumped over himself. His knotted hair hung down over his knees as he slept and swayed with the rocking of the train. Below the knots of hair, were two jeans-clad swollen legs. The seems of his pants were straining against the edemous legs below. (The edema usually comes from unwashed skin developing bacterial infections which bring intense redness, pain, sores and swelling).
I make an effort to not let the smell of an unwashed human body, usually unwashed because the social system in which I am a participant sets up insurmountable obstacles and barriers to cleanliness (hey, I contributed in some way to make or allow this person to smell so bad. I made my bed, I will lie in it) to compel to treat another person with a lack of dignity. However, even I could not handle standing there. I entered the train and walked a few paces away. I tried breathing through my mouth, trusting eventually I would acclimate to the stench. I looked over to this creature. I looked at the passengers around me. I looked at the judgment on their faces-the anger they seemed to feel at the imposition of such a horror as THIS. I bristled at the arrogance, I cringed at my own response, I wished I still had the applesauce so I could give it to him, publicly-maybe model something different to some of the disparaging faces on the train.
And then, a young man, sixteen, chubby-cheeked, bright eyed, baggy sweatshirt, school uniform, earbuds hanging from his ears entered the train...as the shock of smell hit him, he laughed, he laughed out loud. Two twenty something men surreptitiously, almost quietly, pointed over to the dirty lump of a person sitting in the corner all alone. The teen laughed harder. He and the young men had allied themselves together in their disgust. The kid walked, stumbling, making a show of his battle against the smell to the whole train, buoyed by the looks of the other young men. I was enraged. I was disgusted. And I could no longer stand still.
So I walked down the train following the 16 year old. He finally came to a stop at the far end of our car and I strided up next to him. I said, you know as much as it is terrible for us how bad that man smells, I can only imagine how bad it is for him to smell that way. The smile melted off his face. Oh he said. You're right. I said, I am sorry, I know you do not know me, I introduced myself. He told me he was named Robert. He was 16. I know you're just being a kid...but I just hope you can think about that next time...he nodded. Stunned.
I walked back to my spot on the train. I felt good I had done something but fully aware that I had not done enough. The woman on the loud speaker announced my stop in her usually oddly seductive-tone. I stepped off the train wishing I had more applesauce.