"Yeah, I Know--I'm Just a Drunk"


I went to seminary at Union in New York City, uptown, across from Columbia University.  My parish at the time was St. Luke-in-the-Fields down in Greenwich Village, so I spent a lot of time underground, sitting inside the IRT subway train, shuttling up and down Manhattan. At first, I hated the hellish, metallic din of the thing, but eventually I learned to appreciate it: it helped me to blot out my surroundings. Like every other transplant in the city, I found myself overwhelmed by the ongoing assault that is life in New York. I learned to avoid eye contact, to cultivate a demeanor of stoical self-containment: remote, cold, preoccupied. I wanted to appear tough, to make people think twice before messing with me, but I consciously avoided any look of hostility so as not to provoke anyone. I found one of the best ways to keep people at arm's length was to mutter to oneself incessantly; it was guaranteed to generate a wide berth of at least two or three feet to either side. When someone would approach me for a contribution or to proselytize for a cause, I would tell him--in German--that I could not speak English! Always my aim was defensive: to insure I got from one end of the island to the other without being robbed, punched, stabbed, molested, cheated, or conned. To avoid making myself vulnerable, I sealed myself off from all unnecessary human interaction. To every neighbor I made myself a stranger.

One hot September afternoon I happened to find myself seated across from a grimy, homeless drunk. He would nod off, tip over to the left, bang his head on the seat, and immediately spring back to life, only to nod off again. At 72nd Street three muscular teenagers came strutting into the subway. Two of them flopped down on the seat next to the drunk. As the train began to move, the drunk began to tip, right into the lap of one of the teens. The kid reacted angrily, shoving the drunk back with unexpected violence. The drunk grumbled and gropingly thrust his arms forward, as if to ward off the blows he expected to follow. The third and largest teen, who had been standing by the subway door, suddenly flew into an acrobatic spin, whirling his foot around in a furious karate kick to the drunk's head. Teeth and blood spewed everywhere as the poor man went sprawling to the floor. No one moved. No one spoke. The seats were packed, but no arm shot out to break his fall, no voice was raised against his assailants--mine included. A tall respectable man in pinstripes, a robust matron in her Sunday-go-to-meeting best, a bearded gay man wrapped in black leather, a young actress intently studying her script. All of sat stark still, averting our gaze or staring with a kind of fixed detachment, as if watching it all on video in our living rooms. The three teens, flush with adrenalin, slapped high fives and whooped and hollered. At the next stop they strode off to assert their manhood elsewhere. The drunk, dazed and bleeding, groped his way back to his seat on his hands and knees. He touched his mouth with his fingers and stared at the bloody smears as if it hadn't yet dawned on him that it was his own blood. Then he glanced at the man in the pinstripes and he glanced at me. For the first time I could read something human in his eyes. "I know," they said, "I'm only a drunk."  There was no anger, no rage, only a sort of deep, weary resignation. He didn't expect any better from us.

Why did I--why did any of us on the subway that day--let this happen? I had at least four inches on the largest kid; I could easily have made him think twice before attempting to do to me what he had done to his sotted victim. Even granting that none of us could have anticipated the suddenness and ferocity of his kick, we could have at least offered the bruised and bleeding drunk a comforting hand and his assailant a baneful glare. Had we helped him to his chair, we might have given back the man a bit of dignity, affirmed our common humanity, let him know that he was more than just a drunk. Instead, we let him lay there on the subway floor, like a piece of human litter, biological refuse.

Although I can't speak for the other people, I can tell you why I didn't move or speak: I was scared, first of all. In a city where schoolyard shootings were a regular occurrence and the majority of homicides were committed by young males under 25 years of age, I did not want to risk the possibility of ending up on the wrong end of a Saturday night special. And beyond the fear, I felt inadequate, helpless to respond in a way that would shame the attackers and offer real comfort to their victim; I imagined the teenagers laughing at me, the bleeding drunk yanking his arm away from me as I helped him to his feet, cursing me and every other human being under his breath. Moreover, the man repulsed me. He was grimier than a Welsh coal miner after a twelve-hour shift, his human features obscured by caked dirt and the ravages of years spent steeping in alcohol. I had no idea what color his hair or his eyes were, whether he was Hispanic or Irish or a light-skinned black man. He looked utterly alien, like some Neanderthalic cave-dweller who had somehow stumbled through a time warp into my subway car. And I have to confess I found it difficult to feel compassion for a man who had spent years poisoning himself and his relationships with booze. The sight of him touched the anger I felt at members of my own family who had sacrificed their lives to the bottle. The man was, like the victim in the story of the Good Samaritan, already half-dead. In some dark, raging place in my heart, I could not help but feel it would have been a blessing if the karate kick to the head had finished him off. This man was no neighbor of mine; he was the ultimate stranger.

Whenever I used to read the story of the Good Samaritan, I felt indignant at what I perceived as the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite as they hurried past the man lying naked and beaten in the ditch. Surely men steeped in religion should practice the mercy the Lord requires! But then, there I was on the subway: an idealistic, devout, young seminarian, reacting in precisely the same way. I was no hypocrite; I simply lacked the courage of my convictions. I was unable to trust God enough to overcome my fear of pain, injury, embarrassment, and rejection; I was struggling with the weakness of my humanity. I was the sort of man Jesus probably had in mind: someone in a position of some moral standing, unable to live up to the ideals set for him in spite of the best of intentions.

After all, consider the circumstances: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a pathway through purgatory, a treacherous route haunted by gangs of armed thugs who preyed on unsuspecting travelers. Merchants who passed that way regularly went heavily armed. Only if the X Legion had just made one of its periodic crime sweeps through the area did a lone wayfarer have any hope of making the trek without incident. Clearly the priest and the Levite would have had a legitimate fear for their safety. And a moaning, bleeding, half-naked man lying by the side of the road could only mean the threat was immediate: either the thugs had just struck or it was a set-up, designed to pray on their compassion or sense of duty. The prudent thing to do was precisely what they did: cross to the other side of the road and hurry on by.

What, then, of the Samaritan? Why was he uncowed by the threat to his personal safety? Where did he find the courage and compassion to stop and help? Jesus doesn't say, but perhaps it can be inferred from the very fact he was a Samaritan. A Samaritan was the last person an ordinary Jew would have turned to for help. He was a member of a despised minority that had been stripped of its culture and forcibly resettled in northern Israel by the Assyrians some seven hundred years earlier. Though they had adopted their own versions of Jewish religion and custom, they were considered pariahs. "He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like one who eats the flesh of swine," said Rabbi Eliezer, a contemporary of St. Luke. Very specific restrictions of Jewish Law continually reminded the Samaritan of his inferior status, in much the same way Jim Crow laws did for American blacks.

So this Samaritan, traveling alone on the Jericho Road may well have understood pain and suffering much more deeply than the privileged clerics who preceded him. He knew what it was like to be alone, vulnerable, abused, and cut off.  Perhaps as he passed by, he suddenly saw himself in the ditch some years back, beaten and bleeding, a victim of racist rage, attacked not for what he owned but simply for what he was. In that instant he and the half-dead, naked Jew had but one face, a face he recognized as the common face of all human persons, the blessed image of God.  How, then, could he not stop to help? How could he not love this man, this neighbor, as himself? They were one, the same flesh, suffering the same pain, made in the same image, by the same God.

I have struggled to remember many times over the past several years the face of that drunk in the subway. It is one of those images we all carry that singe memory and haunt dreams. I keep wishing I could see it more plainly. I keep wanting to wipe away the grime and the blood and the scars of alcoholism and find his true face, the one that tells me who he is--or who he was. Was he Jewish or Hispanic or Irish or Swedish or African? I know he was some mother's son; was he also a brother, a father, a husband? Did anyone ever try to love him? Did he himself ever love anyone? Did he ever long to be held, to cry at someone's breast? I want to tell him, "I would have loved you, neighbor, as myself, if only I had known who you were, if only I had known you were my neighbor, the same flesh, suffering the same pain, made in the same image, by the same God as I am, if only I had had the courage of my conviction.

I ache to see his true face, the one God gave us all. But all I can see, even now, is the blackness of the dirt and the whites of his weary, bloodshot eyes, which murmur sadly, "Yeah, I know; I'm just a drunk."

Let us pray. O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor. Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart and united to one another with pure affection through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.