Karma is as Karma Does



Neighborhood: Midtown, Port Authority

The sun was gone, blotted out by the Port Authority’s roof. I disembarked into the effluvium of the upper tunnel and made for the gate. From there, clacking escalators, one flight after another, shunted me toward the bottom floor, the subway level. The vendor stalls had all been shuttered, and the soles of my shoes started feeling greasy and unsure. The crowds were thick down here. People, jostling and grunting, headed home. I glanced at the overflowing trash bins and then just dropped my crumpled candy wrappers on the floor. No one looked up.

Just before the doors that led to the turnstiles, I saw her–over by a pillar in the corner, clear of the crush, awaiting her next mark. She was in disguise, I noticed: a broad, open smile; hair neatly coifed; a stylish overcoat; and a large pink suitcase beside her. Her hands seemed to be gripping a wad of timetables. Nice touch, I thought, a ruse for luring the uninitiated into her zone. I reached – unconsciously, it seemed – into my front pocket to grasp protectively at my wad of bills.

I knew all the evasive measures – immerse myself in the flow, disappear, just like any savvy underworld veteran. But as I started to duck further into the crush of bodies, I felt it. Her gaze had locked onto me; there was a sudden tingling, one that made me stay my course at the edge of the mob, being steered straight to her waiting perch. The feeling seemed to be overtaking me more and more these days when I tried one of my escapes.

I was swept close enough so the stains on her coat suddenly appeared. Her hair revealed a certain griminess, suggesting its last washing had been weeks before. And, of course, there was “the smell,” the one every New Yorker knows. Our eyes met. All sound suddenly seemed to vanish from the dreary corridor, leaving just the two of us enclosed in our own cone of dust-moted light.

No words were spoken. It was just her eyes–raised in appeal, holding tight to mine for a long, long moment. Then, her lids sagged in despair and shifted elsewhere, toward another, perhaps more vulnerable-seeming, traveler. The moment ended. I felt a sense of sudden relief, of salvation, as if some outside force was now transporting me on down the filthy ramp, toward the hellmouth of the subway. Let her suck someone else dry, I thought.

I’d already passed through the shabby entranceway, on into the safe zone, when my shoulders slumped, and those despairing eyes–the closing lids–intruded on my inner vision. My steps slowed, and the pressing crowd faded into insubstantiality. The only sound was the ghostly clacking of a downward escalator somewhere in the distance.  The feeling descending over me was distressingly familiar and impossible to shunt aside: an unwelcome sense of common, shared humanity. I knew she had me after all.

I halted in place, my body rigid, oblivious to the bumps and curses of the weary commuters. Slowly, I turned, resignation washing over me, and began shouldering my way back to that corner by the pillar. By the time I reached her, I could tell she’d given up. She was standing now, holding on to the suitcase handle, ready to pull it away somewhere, whatever dark and awful place that somewhere could be for her.

She didn’t see me coming, and, I gave no warning–only my voice, saying simply and softly, “Ma’am, here.” And then handing her the crumpled twenty. She took it, her surprised eyes lifting to meet mine, but by the time they reached me, I’d already begun turning, disappearing back into the crush, down into the dank passage, and somehow, suddenly feeling unburdened–like, of all things, a human being.

I’ve come to call it “karma loading.” This description is a sort of a joke really. I understand the Buddhist notion of karma, more or less, and know the quality comes to inhabit you not so much for what you do but who you are. I also know you can’t earn it. Most of all, I don’t believe in it. It’s too unCatholic a notion; there’s no heaven to be secured. But the joke allows me to feel good about myself, however briefly, knowing at the same time that I’ve had absolutely no effect, good or bad, on the swirling chaos around me.

Tolstoy, in his pamphlet, “What Then Must We Do?” ruminates on the problems of misery and inequality. He analyzes the world around him and takes his readers painfully through the process he himself endured. How can we help? In places, he theorizes about the possibility of utopian societies, and in others discusses how the flaws in human nature itself might be addressed. In the end, in a type of fury and desperation, he sells all his belongings. Gathering up his money, he runs out into the cold, impoverished city, and flings it at the hordes of beggars he finds there. He realizes, finally, it’s done no good; there are too many poor and not enough rich, and the cycle never stops.

I’ve had other victims, many of them. Their number grows weekly. There was the man on the M train last week–the one with the beautiful baritone voice, clothing worn but neatly whisk-broomed; he gave no excuses for his state, didn’t make any requests, but something in his bearing told me he was one of them. There was the bedraggled, hopeless junkie on 14th Street, so weary he couldn’t even ask or gesture for alms, simply presenting himself instead; he was one. You get the picture. If all else fails, I always know there’s the pigeon woman at the corner of Fifty third and Fifth, three blocks down from Trump Tower. She’s been a multiple karma-giver, there for me when I need her. I think I remember them all.

I’ve wrestled with the question of what they do with the money and decided in the end it doesn’t matter. If they cop and then nod off on narrow, dark subway stairs, I don’t care. If they buy bottles of Tokay and squat in filthy piles of blankets, I don’t care. In my own little self-made cosmology, I’ve come to see, none of that matters. Karma Loading  makes me feel good about myself, and why shouldn’t it?

Should I instead give the money to so-called “organized” charities? I’ve certainly given my share to many organizations and then dutifully collected my receipt and deducted it from income taxes.

Could I give it to more “worthy” people, ones who appear somehow to be trying, maintaining their dignity? I’ve made these distinctions in the past but now believe my individual prejudices aren’t part of the process. I’ve gone through all the calculations, top to bottom, inside-out, and in the end it’s all chance and causality. I’m going someplace with money in my pocket, and someone projects some otherwise-unrecognizable grace in the dropping of their eyelids and before you know it I’ve enriched myself for another day.

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§ 10 Responses to “Karma is as Karma Does”

  • Kathleen Nesdale says:

    I think what you do. Comes straight from your heart. Which is a wonderful thing. I myself give. However, I always feel I could do more.

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Thanks, Katheen. I appreciate your insights. I guess, forced to analyze amounts, I’d say there has to be at least a twinge involved, and that’s how one knows a right amount. $20.00 imparts to me a certain reluctance or slight pain, and that’s how I know it’s right for now. Depends on who you are and what your your circumstances can bear, I guess: something of a moveable feast. Thanks again for the thoughts. Jeff

  • scott brown says:

    I was raised to feel for the unfortunate and to help as I saw fit. In the years I chose to help those in need I always gravitated to the ones not so much with their hands out but for the one I thought truly was in need. I would rather donate to the junky on the corner before I would to the character standing at a Walmart driveway with two kids, two dogs and a sign saying “In Need of Gas”. While I feel for the situation I also don’t appreciate the usage of his family while puffing on a cigarette. There is a difference between needing help and being a freeloader.

  • Ghurron Briscoe says:

    Jeff Loeb is quite the sanguine!

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Thanks, Scott. I didn’t realize how timely this piece was going to be. I’m sure the shutdown is devastating there to civilians. I can’t imagine the amount of suffering. You take care. Jeff

  • David Surface says:

    Great piece, Jeff. I love how you ground these thoughts and ideas in a narrative, in the real. And BTW, you understand karma better than you think. Thanks again, and congratulations on the publication.

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    David: Praise indeed, sir. I have to confess that the opening narrative was at the insistence of my editor, Jacob, il miglior faber.

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    another terrific story, jeff. so well constructed and unfurled.

    it’s so interesting how different people make their peace with the less fortunate among us; who, we all secretly know, could be us, given a slight twist of fate. at one point, i pledged to give only to women, as though that were some well-thought-out policy of card-carrying feminists.

    thanks again for your wonderful writing.

  • This piece Carolyn sent me strikes deeply, Jeff. You do indeed write from the heart, as you live. Thank you for writing. I am so glad I was able to read it. I think all of us humans experience that juggling of feelings when confronted with the abject among us. I have taken to supporting a local KC Rescue Mission that, for donations, sends cards that I give to direct people in need to the center. I figure they will be better off if they go and get actual help with their problems and turning their lives around. Then I think, I should have taken them there! But I’m not able to go that far. Then comes the old Catholic guilt! I can so relate to your journey. Do you still go to Trump Tower?`

  • scott brown says:

    I enjoyed this even more then the first time. You are very talented, and we appreciate you sharing your time and ability to form such interesting topics. For the interesting reading and friendship skills we will soon be sharing that quart of Absinthe. Thanks for your passion!

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