Music of a Stolen Symphony

Nov 17, 2008

It's a late night on the streets of New York. Larger-than-life size billboards come alive with their glitz, trying to make you want things that you don't really need. Up ahead, I notice a homeless man who doesn't have the things he really does need. Ironic.

"Gift size chocolate bar, one dollar, one dollar," he says while showing a candy bar to people walking by. He's rejected. "Just one dollar." Rejected again. "Candy bar, candy bar for you," he shows it to a child walking with her mom. The mom jerks her kid away and moved further.

They say that homeless are used to taking rejections, but seeing the charades ahead of me, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. As I stand next to him, shoulder to shoulder, I pause to see if he will try to sell me the candy. He doesn't. I turn to him and ask, "Hey there, buddy. How are you?"

He looks me straight in the eye, as if startled at my directness. Maybe it is because I am ten minutes early for my dinner meeting, but I felt like I was in no rush at all. "How are you doing today?" I repeat my question.

We start talking. A Hispanic guy named "Hectttttauur", with somewhat dirty clothes, many missing teeth and alcohol-smelling breath. Hector tells me his two-minute auto-biography of how he used to be happily married and doing theatre until life threw him a few curve balls. Now he's disgruntled, disillusioned and alone on the streets.

In his right hand, Hector is holding a white plastic bag, in his left hand is the bar of chocolate. He's almost forgotten about it, until I pop the question -- "So, where did you get the candy bar?" I mean, I wasn't trying to put him to shame (because both of us knew that he stole it) but I wanted him to ground himself in the space of truth … even if it was only for that moment.

For the first time, Hector looks down at the ground and says in a lower volume, "I stole it." I didn't want to pass a value judgement on his action, so I am silent. After a moment, he continues as if he's talking to a long-lost brother -- "But what am I supposed to do? Life is so hard. I can't even survive out here, so I gotta do what I gotta do." His eyes are still looking to the ground and I'm just holding the space of silence.

I pull out my wallet, spontaneously. "Hey buddy, you were selling this for a dollar right?" Now, he's silent. "Here's a dollar for your candy bar. But this is what I want you to do with the candy bar -- I want you to give it freely, with an open heart, to someone you don't know." I place a gold-colored dollar coin that I've received as change from the train ticket booth.

"Just give it?" he replies as if it's a novel concept to him. "Yeah, give it away. You receive a lot when you give," I say with a heartfelt smile.

Almost as a child, he innocently counters -- "But will they punch me if I give it away?"

Huh? It took a good five seconds to process that question. Who would worry about being punched when giving? I realize that the concept of giving was so foreign to Hector, he didn't even know what to expect. I couldn't believe it. I almost have tears in my eyes. It's one thing to be hurting because you don't have basic necessities of life, but what poverty to not know the feeling of selfless giving!

"No, no, Hector. When you give, you don't get hurt. It will expand you. Whoever you give to will be happy and you will be happier because of that," I tell him. Hector trusts me, by now. "But you gotta give away, ok?" "Ok," he says.

That bar of chocolate, Hershey's Symphony, was still in Hector's left hand. But now it was almost as if he found the music in his stolen symphony.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."