There is something about living in New York City – or any urban center, for that matter – that cannot be understood unless you have actually done it. There is an energy, of course, with the hustle and bustle of millions of people making their way through another day of commerce; “Ants Marching,” as Dave Matthews put it. But more than that, there is a life experience, a human interaction, that simply cannot be appreciated by those who have not lived it – for better or for worse.
Here are a few snapshots of what I’m talking about:
In my second year as a New Yorker, I was heading home late one night from my job as an actress at a theater on 42nd Street, when I happened upon a (presumably) homeless man taking a dump on the stairs leading down to my subway train.
Another time, at 5:30 in the morning, I was going to meet a friend to see Sting perform on Good Morning America, when I walked past a man holding something in his hand. I only realized it was his penis when I was a few feet away. Needless to say, I blushed a bit as I quickened my pace.
I busked in the subway at 59th and Lex, making $50 in my first hour.
I sang backup for a young singer-songwriter at CBGB’s before it closed.
I danced into the wee hours of the morning at Windows on the World, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, in July of 2001.
I sang at services for homeless people at the Bowery Mission and Salvation Army, breaking down as I sang “Human,” which I wrote about a homeless man in Virginia.
I took in a homeless woman and her two children for a month, went door-to-door in the West Brighton housing projects to invite people to my church, and raced past the rats teeming around the trash cans outside the grocery store at the corner of 110th Street and Third Avenue in Spanish Harlem, as I made my way to my apartment on E. 112th Street.
I’ve auditioned for Broadway musicals (and gotten called back!), performed on 42nd Street, braved the crowds at Times Square on New Year’s Eve in order to get to the theater where I was performing a concert, been to MSNBC’s news studio at 30 Rock, made coffee for Harvey Weinstein, stood in for Mariah Carey on a photo shoot, and acted on a soap opera.
I went to a funeral for a teenage boy killed in a knife fight, because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another time, I found myself seated between members of two warring gangs – the infamous Crips and the other infamous Bloods – on a bus. When they started to threaten each other, I got off the bus and walked over a mile to my destination.
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For some people – possibly some of you – many of these experiences would be reasons enough not to live in New York City. But for me, these are the very reasons I thrive here.
I hear people talk about how being out in nature helps them feel closer to God, but for me, it’s just the opposite. I have felt closest to God when I am thrust face-first into man’s deep needs, on a subway car that reeks because of the homeless person sleeping in the corner, or with a person dying of AIDS on my way to volunteer for God’s Love We Deliver, or in the Meat Packing District, where I see men whose masculinity is buried under big wigs, short skirts, and thick makeup. I feel closest to God on a subway platform, running after two elementary school aged muggers who just swiped my iPhone.
Or a crowded subway train.
This morning, my 2 express train was delayed because of an “incident,” so by the time it finally arrived, there were three times as many people as usual. We did what New Yorkers do when the trains are too crowded: we press in even harder. So there I was, face practically touching a strange man’s neck, so close that I could smell his musky pheromones, when I suddenly took a good look around the car. This is what it might look like in Heaven, I thought to myself, as I started counting as many ethnicities as I could. Korean, I think. Or maybe Japanese. We’ll just say Asian. Indian. Or maybe Bangladeshi? OK, let’s say South Asian. Arab. White. Black. Italian. Mediterranean.
I was still counting when I got to my stop.
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I have a picture in my mind right now. I wish I could paint it. It’s an urban park, with lots of concrete and hardly any grass. It’s summertime, and Jesus is sitting on a cement stump, talking with some transvestites. They’re not laughing; they’re deep in conversation, and the transvestites are crying, their false eyelashes dislodged by their tears, and their mascara running down their faces. I want to join them, but I’m afraid. Then Jesus sees me watching and beckons me to them. So I go.
Suddenly, he is gone, and I am sitting in his place. It is I who is listening to them pouring out their stories of rejection and abuse and abandonment and shame. It is I who is placing my arm around them, comforting them without words. It is I who tells them about how Jesus has helped to heal my broken heart and gave me a new life, and that he will do the same for them if they will trust him.
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I love nature. In fact, one of my favorite getaways is to go hiking in the mountains somewhere, be it Bear Mountain, or the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, or the Catskills out west, or even the Green Belt in Staten Island. But that is not where I feel closest to God.
I feel closest to God not where I see beauty present, but rather where I see beauty absent. Brokenness. Vacant looks on human faces. Gang scars. Baby mamas cursing at their toddlers for asking, “Why?” too much, telling them they wish they’d never been born.
That’s when I miss God – when I am aware of how much I need God – most. That’s when I actually yearn for the God who is called, “Immanuel.” God with us.
God with the man pooping in the subway.
God with the people throwing change in my guitar case.
God with the transexuals under the High Line.
God with the soap opera actress who cried in the green room, because she just found out she was pregnant and it was not a “happy” surprise.
God with the Broadway performers and the man masturbating at Queensborough Plaza and God with the journalists at MSNBC and the grocer who couldn’t get the rats under control, and God with the little monsters who tried to steal my iPhone right out of my hands.
God with the Salvation Army bell-ringers outside Lord & Taylor and God with the man selling dosas out of his truck at 39th and 6th.
And God with me.
Yes, even me.
Merry Christmas, from my heart to yours.