So, there I was, sitting in the new library at Lincoln Center that must have cost the university a bundle, minding my own business and trying to fit in when all of a sudden this kid plops down next to me. He’s nervous. He stutters. He’s Chinese and young. I could tell he had rehearsed his pitch.
He was late to a freshman orientation in the business school and didn’t have a sports coat to wear. Apparently, the orientation called for “business formal.” So, stuttering, he came right out and asked me for my coat. Begged, really.
I looked at him, then around the room. No one else wore a sports coat or jacket. I hesitated, not out of doubt but because the question was so unexpected and brazen that it threw me off guard. That doesn’t happen very often. He must have interpreted it as suspicion and offered me his cellphone and student ID to hold in escrow. I thought immediately of the practice in the ancient world of exchanging hostages to secure a truce. Caesar did it in Gaul.
I took him aside and removed my coat, reassuring him that I did not need his cell phone or wallet. Actually, I wanted him to calm down, since everybody’s attention was now turned toward us. I’m used to that sort of thing in the classroom. They watch your every move. But this was different. I was undressing.
“I’ll be back at seven-thirty,” he promised, thanking me profusely and bowing. I told him I would wait in the lounge area and wished him luck.
I never saw him again. Seven-thirty came and went, then eight o’clock. I had an appointment and left the library. An hour later the texts came in a cascade. Apologies, he had the jacket, where could we meet, thank you again, etc. I gave him a place and time: 9:20 pm, the main lobby of the business school. He never showed. Another waterfall of texts.
I don’t like being had. I don’t like being underestimated. If he hadn’t been young, confused, and a student, I wouldn’t have given him the time of day. However, I didn’t get upset. I reminded myself that at that age the human brain still isn’t fully developed. Of course he was overwhelmed, and in another language no less. The pressure must have been enormous.
E.M. Forster writes in his masterpiece, Howard’s End, “To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it.” I suppose this is how most people view it. But I think if trust is to mean anything, it has to be given not out of our excess but need. That is, it has to cost something whether we are rich or poor. The same is true of love, compassion, and hope. If these things don’t cost us anything, then what have we really given?
This happened on a warm September evening with a coat that I really don’t mind losing. In fact, I may tell him to keep it. So, it wasn’t really given from my need. On the other hand, more than once I have been short a dollar or two after handing out cash to people on the street. I wanted to kick myself. Then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids who refuse to help their unprepared friends and are rewarded for it (Mt 25:1-13).
We’ve set another date for the exchange. We’ll see if he shows up. I’m actually curious to see what the coat looks like on him.
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