Eleven years ago, newly married and living in Germany, I took the train a couple of times a week from Krefeld to the nearby city of Duisburg to audit a university Spanish class. On the way home one day, as I headed through Krefeld’s main train station to catch my tram, I spotted a raggedy old man in the middle of the main hall, bending over desperately to pick something up. What it was he was trying to grab I could not tell. All the people, smartly dressed in their black trousers and smooth coats adorned with stylish scarves, rushed right past the scruffy man dressed in multiple layers of faded, torn, and dirty clothing. They didn’t bother to notice that his stiff, stubby fingers could not bend to get a grip on the object lying on the train station floor.
I stood for a moment to watch him, to see if he would in fact succeed in picking up that pinkish mystery object. But he struggled.
Then I stood for one more moment to see if any of the sleek passers-by would suddenly observe his distress and stop to help him. But they didn’t.
And then I felt his helplessness and embarrassment. His aloneness. His isolation from society as an untouchable of sorts. They stabbed me swiftly, those emotions.
So I briskly walked to his spot there in the middle of the train station hall and nimbly bent over to pick up the elusive object. I placed it in his hands, looking only briefly into his confused and surprised eyes as not to cause any more embarrassment than had already been inflicted upon his poor soul. Then, glancing down to his gloved appendages before making my quick getaway, I was able to discern this object’s very fundamental importance to the man: He needed it to smile. He needed it to talk. He needed it to eat.
Very simply, he needed his teeth.
Quite taken aback, I went directly to the train station restroom to debrief and wash my hands. Teeth. Teeth? Teeth?! Really? I was at once humbled and humored, embarrassed and honored, grossed-out and grateful for the experience, for my own teeth.
At my church in the next few weeks we will be talking about shaking the systems of injustice by being brave and not safe. Sometimes I like to think that I’m heroic and courageous, that I really have what it takes to take the risk and be the Good Samaritan in my everyday life. But I have to wonder: If I had recognized the roundish looking item as his dentures, would I have picked them up? Would I still have been bold enough to just walk right over and touch the moist article that had his saliva all over it, without first even looking for a tissue or something? Or would I have worried about germs and disease breeding on those false, neither pearly nor whites and kept walking? I don’t know. I just don’t know.
What about you? What would you have done?