Our greatest gift is our humanity, yet sometimes we forget or struggle to see. Recent events in Paris serve as a reminder of this gift. The congregation of people from all walks of life proclaiming: ‘je suis Charlie, Flic, Musulman or whatever’.
This coming together of minds to celebrate our humanity took me back to a night in New York City in June 2014. After a long day of conference proceedings, dinner, speeches, after dinner drinks and banter I ended up in a diner on 9th Avenue – the only eatery around that was open in the early hours of the morning. A colleague and I had traversed the entire breadth of Manhattan (it was also close to our hotel) to get there. I had the munchies after too many cocktails and a long walk and was determined to get a prime slice of New York Pizza. The place was deserted and staff looked as if they’d been up too long and couldn’t wait to get home.
We ordered our slices and just as we were tucking in a young man entered the café. He walked up to our table and asked bluntly if I could give him some money.
I looked at the young man – he was tall, black, well build, in his late teens or early twenties, wore a thick body warmer and had a long, thin, pronounced scar across his cheek bone. Rather than ignoring his request something about him intrigued me and I replied: “why would I give you money?”
His response was that he had fallen out with his mother who had kicked him out of the house and that he had nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep and had no money. I offered him a pizza slice but he refused.
I asked why he was out of pocket – didn’t he have a job? He replied he didn’t and that he couldn’t find work. I asked him what he was good at and suggested maybe he could turn his skills into a job.
His reply took me utterly by surprise – he said he was good at 2 things only – one of which was so unimaginative that I have forgotten yet the other was incredible. He said he was good at making roses out of toilet paper! ‘Roses out of toilet paper I exclaimed!’ I was not expecting that to be one of his answers and wasn’t sure whether to take him seriously or if it was a joke. My curiosity fuelled I asked if he could show us.
He wanted to know if we had the time because it would take him 30 minutes. Thirty minutes seemed a very long time and my curiosity grew even further and I invited him to sit down.
He took place next to me and started organising, tearing, folding, wetting and sculpting the diner’s cheap, non-absorbent, paper napkins – the kind you find in eateries across the world.
The look on his face had transformed from angry, lonely and frustrated to almost child like, bright and playful yet with a huge degree of intent and concentration. It was remarkable to see.
The young man sat there for the full 30 minutes without saying a word and so did we. It was an absolute delight to watch him work and see his progress. With his big hands and fingers he touched his sculpture in the making with such delicacy. Picking up each meticulously torn piece of paper with precision and care and folding and sculpting it into a most wonderful creation.
What this young man was producing was a work of art – connoisseurs would have applauded his workmanship and precision. MoMA eat your heart out!
The young man’s face was full of pride as he held his sculpture like a delicate flower.
I don’t know what the praise and dollars (of course) we gave him elicited in this man but when he left the diner he seemed a great deal more serene and happy than when he’d entered. I have no idea where he went or what has happened to him but I hope he realises his talents and continues to shine.
What’s certain is that he made our night and maybe we made his – it was a delight meeting him and a reminder that we are all in this together – Nous sommes tous l’humanite – whatever our needs, wherever and whoever we are.
PS. He was happy for me to take his picture and I hope he agrees to it being online.