When I worked in New York, I lived in a one-room apartment in the basement of a four-story house in an area of New Jersey called Edgewater. I was 300 feet from the Hudson River. I could stand at my front stoop and watch the boats sailing the vast spread of water from New Jersey’s edge out to Manhattan Island. Every night the sky glowed with the lights out across into 91st street, and every morning I could see the George Washington Bridge rising up over the mist of the river. I traveled to work, in Times Square, by bus. The bus system out of New Jersey was very reliable and not too expensive. Since I took the bus daily, and since I mostly went into the city at the same time everyday, I would see the same folks traveling into work. Edgewater is an area with a large Asian community. There was a lot of Korean being spoken on my bus. Obviously, I don’t speak much Korean… Well, okay, I speak no Korean. So I was always grateful when I heard someone close speaking English. There was a young lady I would see everyday. She was small. A little slip of a girl, with very straight, black hair and she wore those cat-rimmed glasses that were popular during the “Lisa Loeb” days. Over the weeks of riding the bus, and sitting in the same seat next to her, we began to have those polite conversations about the amount of people on the bus or the weather. Every day I noticed her getting off of the bus at the marina outside of The Lincoln Tunnel and I asked her why she got off at this stop. There didn’t really seem to be any place to live around there. She explained that she lived on a boat moored at the marina. I was immediately impressed. Not because of the novelty, but because of the fiscally sensible nature of it. Apartment living in New York is wildly expensive. We soon began to talk about work. She had a PR job with a theatrical producer in the city. The show they had recently produced was wildly popular. It was one of those deadly serious, contemporary shows. I’ve never seen it, but so many of my friends LOVE IT! Which means I would find it very depressing. I‘m at a point in my life where I can live without experiencing theatrical depression. I just think there’s enough real world in the real world. Why go see people pretend to be depressed when you can just go talk to a friend who’s down, and maybe end up making their day better? (I will admit that I do like being in plays that address depressing stuff, but it hardly gets me down as much as watching it live on stage.) She, very politely, asked what I did in New York. I explained I was an actor in a revival of the musical Finian’s Rainbow. It was kind of a big deal at the time because it had been so well received by the critics in town. (But, of course, that means nothing if you can’t get people into the theatre…and we couldn’t……sigh) I explained it was my second Broadway show. My first show in Times Square was in a musical version of “A Tale of Two Cities”. Don’t laugh…. I know people think it’s funny what folks will turn into a musical, but the show was lovely and heart felt and full of really wonderful performances. I like the show very much, but New York critics did not. They turned up their noses, and then the economy crashed, and we crashed, head first, with it. I was very sad for the people who had put so much time and money into this beautiful, redeeming tale. Why did folks reject our attempts to create something uplifting and noble? Why couldn’t they see what I saw in it? A life-changing story of redemption.
I spent a little time commiserating about it with her. She then to turned me, and said, “You know why people didn’t come to your show, right?”
I had no idea.
“Because,” she continued, “the story isn’t true. It can’t happen.”
“What can’t happen?” I asked.
“People don’t change. That’s why people like my show. We’re showing people truth. There is no such thing as redemption.”
I’m sure my mouth dropped open. I’m pretty sure I looked at her as if she had just told me the sky is actually orange, Miley Cyrus is America’s 21st century poet laureate, and the white and pink stuff in grocery store deli crab salad is really crab.
I didn’t really know what to say. I imagined the hundreds, if not thousands, of people I knew who had their lives turned around by the intervention and careful mentoring of others. I clumsily made that point, but she was absolutely unimpressed by my answer. It was my experience against her empirical belief. My happy little stories were not going to convince her to let go of the despair she wanted so desperately to embrace.
I’ve spent the last 2 days in a town that is a kind of gateway between Baltimore and Washington DC. The schools have a big job to help children…change. They struggle to keep their children away from the dangers of poverty, the opioid crisis, lack of focus, and every electronic device which seems to be shortening the attention span of every child on this earth. Why do they bother? Because they know that people CAN change. However, it doesn’t happen because they hear a story, or are inspired by something they have seen in passing. It happens because people are willing to step into the lives of others and help them. Get to know them. Love them. It’s the dedication of those who see value in a person’s life and are willing, for the long haul, to bear the burdens, and share the pain and joys of those around them. Thank heavens for the local teacher.