The couple you are about to meet (Carl Morgan and Rebecca Levy) are new lovers. The two of them, progressive lawyers from different Washington, D.C. law firms, are in New York for a World Humanitarian Forum conference. Carl and Rebecca, both in their mid-30s, are about to leave their hotel following the two-day conference. Soon the valves of their hearts will open, but perhaps not wide enough. One more thing: neither of them has ever heard of Simone Weil, nor have they read Waiting on God . . . though evocative intimations of both hover in the winter air.
“Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death.” — Simone Weil
The chill of the morning was everywhere when Carl and Rebecca exited through the lavish hotel’s revolving door and waited to catch a cab back to LaGuardia Airport. As they stood there, a homeless woman approached, begging with a paper cup in her weatherworn hand. The doorman, well dressed in a hat and big flannel overcoat, started to whisk her away when Carl stepped in.
“Excuse me,” he said as he cast a frown of disapproval to the bellman.
“Good morning, ma’am. What’s your name?” asked Carl.
“Ruth,” she responded with her head bowed down — she was doing her best to avert the doorman’s eyes that bore holes in her.
“Glad to meet you, Ruth,” he replied. Carl then ever so lightly placed his hand on her shoulder, noticing as he did how tattered and inadequate her coat was to keep her warm. The specter of her poverty and frailty unsettled him. Ruth, by contrast, felt frightened by his familiarity and the unwanted touch. He exuded naivety and wealth — the type of person who would perhaps give her some much-needed cash.
She paused. What was going on? The man seemed like he was going to help but now he began to move away. While she waited, Carl looked across the street and then over a few doors until he spotted a thrift shop, or what looked like one. He had an idea.
“Becky, you stay with Ruth, I’ll be right back. I promise.”
Though Rebecca had a sense of what Carl was up to and approved, the bellman was another matter. He didn’t want any homeless beggar in front of his hotel. Just as he began to say something Carl slipped him a twenty-dollar bill and said:
“Look, this won’t take long. I’ll be right back. And if you accommodate us, there’s another twenty in it for you. Okay?”
The bellman nodded with reluctant approval.
Ruth’s stomach churned and her hands shook, so much so that she could barely conceal them in the folds of her coat. She hoped Rebecca would think that the tremors were from the cold but in truth, she was burning hot. Her metabolism, used to processing alcohol, was going into overdrive.
What could he possibly be doing? Where was he going? Her bowels jerked. She suddenly feared she might have an accident right here on the street. It had happened last week.
Rebecca was speaking but Ruth barely understood anything, being preoccupied as she was. Though dumbfounded, she was hopeful of something good coming her way.
They all watched on as Carl he ran across the street, through traffic, and then down the block. When Carl entered the store – it was a thrift shop, whose profits went to help local theatre actors in Covid times – he looked around for a rack of women’s coats. He pulled out several coats until he found one that might work – a gray insulated wool and polyester coat with a belt, a big collar and a hood. Nothing terribly fancy, but practical. He held it up to gauge if the size seemed right. He bought it. In no time he was back across the street with the coat, his gift to Ruth.
“Ruth, here’s a new coat for you, try it on,” he said with the glee of having first had the idea and then the chance to act on it. “Here, try it on.”
The short stocky woman, probably in her late 40s (though it’s hard to be sure), looked up with an empty expression as if she didn’t understand what was happening. She glanced at the coat with puzzled disinterest. Not knowing how or to whom to respond, the disheveled woman turned to Rebecca.
“I’d rather have da money. I dun’t need da coat,” she said in a halting way. “I dun’t wanna make him angry. Will he get angry at me?”
It was painful to hear her speak, or try to speak through the broken cavern of her mouth.
“No, of course not, Ruth. He won’t get angry. He just wants you to have a warm coat. And you can have some money, too.”
Carl stood there, helpless, as the two women continued to talk about money and what to do with the coat.
“Can’t I just have da money, and ya can keep the coat?”
The more Becky and Ruth spoke, the more apparent it became that the woman wasn’t about to accept anything but money. If Carl thought he could – by some kind of Mother Teresa act of charity correct the injustice of nature or the terrible cruelty of poverty and mental illness – he was sadly mistaken. Feeling defeated and depressed, he held onto the coat and handed the woman a twenty-dollar bill.
“Thank ya,” she replied, this time looking at Carl as she took the money from him.
“Look Ruth, you can have the money and the coat. No problem. Really.”
What came next was beyond him: “Can I take da coat back and get da money back, too? Can I?”
Things were getting complicated. Besides, flush with all this cash, what was she likely to do? The answer was certain in his mind – buy booze. So, in effect, he was subsidizing her alcohol addiction. While that made him very uncomfortable, he didn’t feel he should sit in judgment over her. His attitude was simple. If this money made her plight more comforting in any way, then he was fine with it . . . and that made him feel good too! Thus rationalizing the situation he turned to her though not looking directly into her vacant eyes.
“Yes Ruth, you can take it back if you like. Here is the receipt.”
She took the receipt, pocketed the money, and then launched across the street — a car nearly hit her as she did. Carl turned to Rebecca and shook his head.
“You tried,” she replied, “and I’m so proud of you.”
“Yea, I guess. But we need to do more.” The sight of agony unnerved Carl; it made him feel guilty for some unknown reason.
With an impatient doorman looking on, Becky hugged Carl. Unknown to him, Carl Morgan had just scored a point in the score box of her heart. As for the doorman, Carl tipped him another twenty dollars, and then got into a cab and headed for the airport with Rebecca.
“Thank God for the poor,” said Carl.
“What? Why’s that?” responded Rebecca.
“They help us relieve our guilt. Without them, in our presence, we’d be oblivious to much of the suffering in the world. And if it weren’t acts of charity, we’d be guilt-ridden over our inability to do anything to help those so afflicted.”
She laughed. “So they’re doing us a favor by taking our money? Is that the logic of your thinking, Dr. Freud?”
“Vell,” he answered playfully, “yes. The truth is we need to see suffering and remember it, and also to remind us of our obligation to do something. We are, after all, our sisters’ keepers.”
“Forgive me Carl – and don’t get me wrong – but isn’t your gift really a tad selfish?”
“How so?” he replied.
She paused and then rested her hand on his: “It’s easier to give money; it’s how we allay our guilt when their affliction enters into our flesh and soul. If we hand to internalize their suffering, now, that would be an act of supreme charity.”
“Come on, Becky, you’re asking the impossible! And I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.” His tone revealed that Carl was starting to get defensive.
“Relax, honey. What I’m trying to say is that — how do I put it? — there is more going on here than poverty. I’m not sure what to call it, but there’s something at the core of Ruth’s plight that seems beyond attending to by money or coats or both. That something almost paralyzes us; it leaves us incapable of doing anything meaningful. So what do we do? Yes, we offer a helping hand, but one that strikes me as kindness in search of some self-vindication.”
“Why are you making this so complicated,” he replied
“I don’t know, but sometimes I have trouble with liberal guilt, at least when I stop and think of it. I mean, it seems to be about the other, but it’s really about oneself. Fact is, people like Ruth frighten us – their very appearance terrifies us. So what do we do? We throw money at them and flee from the scene. Am I making any sense?”
“Well yes,” Carl replied, “but who lives in that saint’s world? We do what we can do, the psychological explanations of our motives be dammed! Life, Becky, is not what some high-and-mighty priests and rabbis would have us believe. We see suffering, we act! The rest I’m happy to leave to philosophers and psychologists.”
“I guess that makes sense, and you did help her, no? The fact is that your charity, however one casts it, touched me. I grew up on those values, on tzedakah. So it made me feel better about myself . . . and you, too. So let’s leave it there.”
With that statement, Carl reached inside his overcoat, pulled out his phone, and sent an e-mail to his office computer. “Reminder: Schedule meeting w/ Judy Donovan re relief fund & send $$ to women’s shelter.” That done, he put his arm around Becky and relished the moment with her. Life was moving on, and they were, too.
For Ruth, it was more of the same story. Now out of sight and in a dark soiled doorway, she anxiously fed her habit with Smirnoff vodka until she collapsed in relief and waited for the waves of nausea to subside. (A year or so later –no one was sure of the exact date — Ruth died a “drunkard’s death” — her cirrhotic liver rejected the blood that was intended to pass through it. Her blood then backed up, a vein burst, and she drowned in her own blood.)
Meanwhile, Carl and Rebecca made it to their plane on time and arrived back at Reagan National Airport in the late afternoon. Since Carl was behind in his work, he thought it best to go to his office and attend to things. Rebecca was fine with that arrangement since she had a stack of things to do waiting for her at home.
“This has been an incredible weekend, one I’ll never forget. And none of its magic would have been possible without you. I love you, Becky.”
While reality was closing in on her, Rebecca was still under Carl’s romantic spell.
“You’re quite a man, you are, Carl Morgan. They broke the mold with you.”
He smiled. And then with a mixture of pride and uncertainty replied: “Maybe they did, then again, maybe not.” He hugged her, tightly, and added: “I’ll call you in a few days,” this as Rebecca entered a cab and drove off. A minute later, Carl did likewise, heading to his Pennsylvania Avenue office. As the cab zoomed by all the nondescript government buildings, Carl could not get Ruth’s haunting image out of his mind.
Simone Weil, Waiting on God, Emma Craufurd trans. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), 64. See also Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks, Richard Rees trans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 93-94.1 Recommendation