I was standing outside the Pret A Manger inside DC’s bustling Union Station busy minding my own business, listening to Pandora, and idly waiting for my girlfriend to arrive, so we could catch a train to Philly.
The Red Line, as usual, was having issues.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch an eager looking gentleman trying to get my attention.
‘Is my music too loud,’ I thought to myself. No, it wasn’t.
He smiled, nodded his head. I acknowledged him, with a returned head nod–something guys inherently do the world over. ‘Yes, I’m approachable’ or ‘Yes, I see you’ are among but a few of the many messages it can send.
“Are you Israeli?” he asks with a perceptible accent that told me he was both foreign born, but fully comfortable in English.
“Do you speak Hebrew?”
Maybe he wasn’t so comfortable in English after all.
“Where are you from,” he said, exhausting all of his presumed options.
“Kentucky.” He gives me a sincere look of ‘what the fuck.’ It’s the same look I often get when I tell people I’m from Kentucky without providing context.
“But my dad is Iranian,” I explain, recognizing he needed clarification.
“Ahh,” as if that explained his perception of my Jewishness (wait, does that mean we all look alike?) and was enough for him to be comfortable to continue the conversation, “Are you Muslim?”
“Yes, but only as much as one can be growing up in rural Kentucky.”
With the formalities of feeling me out completed, he asks, “My friend, last night I lost my wallet, my train ticket, everything. Could you help be buy a bus ticket back to Boston? I have no money. I’ll send you a check when I get back. I promise”
“Consider it as an exercise in cross-cultural engagement.”
‘Fuck, he knows my weakness.’
“Sure, how much do you need?”
“The ticket costs $40. There’s an ATM right over there,” he said pointing to the ATM in front of the H&M.
‘This guy has really scoped this place out. Is he scamming me? Or maybe he’s just been here a while.’
I walked over towards the ATM, started to insert my card, and saw the sign that read out of order. Was that an omen? Should I turn back now? Give up on the potential cross-cultural bridge building?
As I turn, I catch his face looking hopeful, for the first time all day, someone will finally help him make that 8 hour bus ride back to Boston. Otherwise he might end up the real life version of Tom Finnerty (yes, that was a Sopranos reference).
“I think there’s another ATM around the corner,” I said, “This one’s broken.”
“Thank you for helping me. My friend, what’s your name?”
‘Oh crap, he’s not going to believe I’m not Jewish.’
“David,” I respond, chuckling to myself, as I shake his hand.
“Eli, my name is Eli.”
‘Should I tell him my middle name is Abraham? No, absolutely not, don’t do that. He’s really going to think you’re lying to him about not being Jewish.’
“Again, thank you for helping me.”
There’s a line at the two ATMs through two sliding glass doors and around the corner from Pret. They sit at the top of the exit from the metro station and close to where the trains arrive. Both of us sit in an awkward silence that lasted all of two minutes but felt like eternity.
Finally, it’s my turn.
I go through the familiar motions of withdrawing funds from a cash machine pulling out $60, an extra $20 for myself. Transaction completed.
As I hand him the $40, he most certainly had seen me pull three twenties from the machine, Eli asks, “Can I have $20 more for some food along the way? It’s an 8 hour trip.”
‘Let’s not ruin this moment of cross-cultural bridge building, Eli,’ I thought.
“I’m sorry that extra $20 is for me,” I said, almost immediately regretting it because it sounded way too harsh and made me feel a little like Smokey’s mother in Friday.
“Ahh, no worries, friend. Thank you for this. But, please, give me your phone number or address, I will send you a check when I get back to Boston,” he insisted.
“Pay it forward, my friend. When someone asks you for help, help them. That’s how you can pay me back,” I responded sounding almost sanctimonious, rather than benevolent.
“Thank you, Thank you, I will,” he said smiling as he walked to buy his bus ticket.
Somewhere in Boston, Eli is sitting comfortably (I hope) sipping coffee or tea, and periodically thinking about our interaction at Union Station. I wonder if he ever found anyone to buy him food or if he waited, hunger pangs unabated, until he got home.
It’s been less than a month and I still laugh that of all the people scurrying through Union Station, he picked me solely because I looked the most Jewish.