Part One – Downtown Manhattan
Several years ago, Chad had spent a week serving the homeless at the Bowery Mission in New York City. Today was his first return to the city. However, I believe it has been 18 years since my last visit. In 1993 and 1994, I visited Manhattan frequently, providing computer training on behalf of my employer to dozens of companies from mid-town to downtown. I had always enjoyed my trips to New York and I was excited to return today.
My purpose for visiting New York City was different this time. When I had last stepped foot on Manhattan, Chad was only 3 or 4 years old. I had yet to experience the adversity of divorce and my value system was much different than it is now. As part of the Gramazin Journey, today we were heading to the Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem, NJ to meet the folks who minister to those who were formerly incarcerated.
We arrived at the Trenton Transit Center in Trenton, NJ just moments before the double-decked train left for New York City. It was a dreary morning in the Mid-Atlantic region, with mist and fog not only obscuring the scenery of downtown Trenton but also suggesting Chad and I would have a rather gloomy travel experience in the Big Apple.
Back in 90s, I often visited the World Trade Center complex. I have a very clear memory of the long escalator from the PATH train from New Jersey up to the shopping complex underneath the towers. I remember the elevators that rushed me up to whatever floor I was visiting in either the North or the South towers. Specifically, I remember the 78th floor sky lobby in the South Tower. There was an escalator up from that lobby to the reception area of Fuji Bank, where I can clearly recall sitting in a sofa right next to the windows, looking far down to the street below and looking across at the upper floors of the North Tower.
It is my understanding the plane that hit the South Tower on 9-11 struck that very same sky lobby, destroying in an instant the offices I had visited at Fuji Bank. I can visualize looking out the windows of that lobby and seeing a plane heading right for me. I have often wondered how many people I visited in the towers, rode elevators with, or passed by in either of the two lobbies who would become victims of 9/11 seven or eight years later.
Just as I did two weeks ago when Chad and I visited the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, PA, I felt I had to begin our day in New York City by paying respects to the many innocent victims who perished on 9-11. My heart goes out to the victims and their families and I would love Gramazin to do our part to help the families continue to heal and recover. I am confident there are thousands of inspirational stories of 9-11 that would be such a blessing to publish on Gramazin.
There is something very inspiring about One World Trade Center. It is about recovery. It is about healing. It is about the determination of the human spirit to overcome adversity and enjoy a better tomorrow. Though it was disappointing to not be able to see the top of the building because of the low clouds, the building looks beautiful anyway, a testimony to what each one of us can achieve when we decide to rebuild our shattered lives. We can all become an inspirational story.
Chad and I were accosted by a street vendor who was determined we would purchase a book about the attack. The price “amazingly” shrunk from $ 20 to $ 5 with each “No thank you” that we offered. While we never did purchase the book, the vendor had me thinking about it each time he said “See that picture in the book? That’s that over there.”
Since we could board the subway that would take us to the Exodus Transitional Community at Wall Street, I suggested to Chad we take the short walk over and see what still remains, at least for the immediate future, the financial capital of the world. We took a few pictures of the New York Stock Exchange, Trinity Church, and the bull statue.
We also made an attempt to view the Statue of Liberty. However, the fog reduced our visibility of the harbor and we were disappointed. We did see the globe in Battery Park that used to be in the World Trade Center complex.
As I wrote on my visit to Philadelphia a month or two ago, it is important to capture the stories of real people we encounter on our trip across America. A woman was attempting to take the elevator from the street down to the subway. She was mumbling but not entirely incoherently. She saw a group of about 30 tourists and she shouted over them – “Are you protesting something? What are you protesting? I’ll join you!” There is something about her that is intriguing to me. What made her so eager to protest? She must have a great deal of bitterness in her heart. If only I had attempted to talk with her.
As we waited to cross State Street in the Battery Park area, there was a young man talking on his cell phone who was angry! Angry! You could hear him shouting 100 yards away, telling whomever he was speaking to that he has had enough with “her” and he “hates her”, clearly with a fervor.
Given what we will experience in part two of our story at the Exodus Transitional Community, it just makes you think. What will that angry young man be like in 5 years? Will he be incarcerated? Or will be be a man filled with compassion, wanting to extend love to others because of the love he has encountered in his life? It will take at least two people to change his angry heart – himself, as he needs to make good choices, and someone else who decides to love him unconditionally.
Part Two – Exodus Transitional Community
Alright. I will be candid. When we walked out of the subway in Harlem at 125th street after our ride from Wall Street, I noticed that there were not too many “white folks” walking around, kind of understating the truth. This wasn’t Morgantown, WV or even Baltimore, MD! A scene from Harlem in the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die” came to mind. Chad and I didn’t talk about the “risks”, risks that were kind of authenticated when someone who had done some serious prison time at the Exodus Transitional Community spoke to us later about how much he used to ”hate white people”. We just took the subway there and walked the two blocks, trusting that we were making connections God wanted us to make and we would be fine.
I share this because it is an important point to make. It is our nature as humans to be afraid of others, especially those who are different from us. We tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us because it is safer and doesn’t take us out of our comfort zone. However, that results in discrimination (and hatred) in our society and the separation of people groups. We avoid being compassionate to others because we fear them! We avoid being compassionate to others because we judge them! We avoid being compassionate to others because we don’t take the time to understand them and get to know them!
I could name a few people I know who would have most likely counseled Chad and I it’s not a good idea to be “white people” walking around Harlem, New York. Had we sought their advise and listened to it, we would have lost out on a beautiful experience meeting the wonderful people of Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem, NY!
As we approached the facility, we noticed two men were waiting on the sidewalk to greet us. Reflecting back on that small act of consideration for Chad and I, it really reflected the spirit of the people we were about to meet. Courteous, thoughtful, friendly, kind, and organized! Of course someone would be waiting at the front door. That’s the kind of things people like this do for strangers!
We were struck right away by the welcoming art and messages on the stairs. If I was someone who had just been released from prison, I would want to come to a happy place, a place of hope, and a place where I would feel warmly welcomed and invited into their place. Exodus Transitional Community achieves that warm greeting with how they have designed their stairs.
The organization has two floors above what I guess is a grocery store. Honestly, no offense intended to the store owner, I never noticed what type of store was on the first floor. However, the second and third floors are clean, organized, colorful, and bright. That same welcoming feeling you get on the stairs continues throughout the rest of the facility.
Readers, please do not underestimate the amount that Chad and I were impressed by the friendliness of the people in this organization! My word! We felt we had a whole new family in a matter of minutes! Smiles. Warm handshakes. “Can I get you anything?” I’m not just talking one or two people. I’m talking all of the 10-15 people we met!
Hey, I’m not entirely ignorant. I’m sure there are tense moments in the organization. I’m sure there must be people who don’t have great experiences with them. Nobody is perfect and no organization is either. Maybe Chad and I were bedazzled by public relations savvy. If so, sign this crew up for your next PR project! They are good at what they do! However, you could see it as the minutes passed – there is genuine love for others and one another in this place. The family atmosphere was legitimate and real! I’m ready to call them all my brothers and sisters!
Diana Ortiz, the associate director, is an inspiring woman. She courageously shared with Chad and I a DVD documentary that was made about her story. Diana was an unwitting accomplice in a murder of an off-duty police officer when she was 18 years of age. For her crime, Diana spent over 20 years in prison.
She has clearly changed her life around. I was most impressed by both her warmth and her professionalism, as she kept Chad and I on a tight schedule of planned meetings and even a class we could sit in on. If you have reason to do business with Exodus Transitional Community and you end up interacting with Diana, I am confident you will enjoy your experience.
A series of interviews were scheduled for Chad and I. Staff and, I believe, clients were brought in to talk to us. They were all dressed professionally, some with jackets and ties. I don’t remember all their names, for which I apologize, but I remember the impact they all had on me. Friendly. Full of hope for a better life. Willing to work hard to make changes. These people, multi-racial from both genders, both young and not-so-young, educated and not educated, all deserve our support, prayers, and our help. They want to break free from the cycle of destruction and prison and be a source of good in our society.
We were then invited into a class that was already in session. The class met around a large board room table and Chad and I were invited to take the front seat. The class was led by Gregory Frederick, an adjunct professor at NYU and a former incarcerated person himself. This man is passionate about the transformation of individuals and he is confident in how that transformation occurs.
Highlights from his teaching included:
- Courage and desperation are very close to each other
- We have four basic needs – to live, to love and be loved, to feel important (to matter), and to experience change
- We have core beliefs from which we make rules which then impacts our behavior which then causes consequences for us. For example, if I believe society owes me, I might have a rule that I should have the same things others have. I then take action to rob a store which has the consequence of prison. I might commit that crime to live (need money to buy food), to love (be accepted by the gang), to feel important (power over the victims), and to experience change (boredom with current circumstances).
- Look at an acorn. Tiny. But, if you properly nurture it, it can become a large oak tree. Make the right decisions, take the right actions, and your life can become a big oak tree, giving shade and comfort to others.
- ACORN – Accept your situation, make the right Choices, get Organized, live Responsibly, and Nurture the right relationship
- A dream of a better life must be put on the calendar – todo lists!
- There are six key components to a life – education, relationships, employment, spiritual, health, and community
The classroom atmosphere was one of sharing, support, and listening to each other’s stories. One woman shared with tears how her father was being buried the very same day in Puerto Rico. She was not allowed to leave the country for his funeral because, I believe, of her record as a felon.
The following verses come to my mind as I write about this woman. Regardless of who you think Jesus Christ was, his message of compassion for those in prison is timeless. We serve God when we are compassionate to those who are in prison and who were formerly incarcerated.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me,I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:35-40
Alright, so Jean committed a crime of some kind and she was in jail from 1984 to 2006. I honestly don’t remember what she did to end up being in jail. Must have been quite serious. All I could see in her was a loving woman who loved touching others lives by cooking! She is one awesome cook too, learning to cook in prison! Chad and I, as well as everyone else, enjoyed chicken and rice and I think sweet potatoes. She made a chocolate cake which I am told was delicious too (chocolate and I don’t get along so I avoid it).
Speaking for the Formerly Incarcerated
I want to share with readers a few thoughts from my experience talking with the people we met today.
- Believe in me! I want to change! I need your help! Honestly everyone, society has only one choice with respect to the formerly incarcerated – help them change! Believe in them! Think about what your fears and avoidance of them does to our society. We neglect them and they don’t get the help they are pleading for. In desperation they become repeat offenders. For those who are worried about taxes spent on “career criminals”, imagine the money that our society could save if you had given them a chance when they were eager to change their lives! Hire them for even the most menial of jobs if that’s all you can offer. Many will be eager to prove themselves even with the smallest opportunity! Give them an internship, helping them build up a resume! Coach them and mentor them! Can you imagine all the anxieties and insecurities someone coming out of prison has? Think about it. Imagine even the shock of going into prison in 1990 and coming out 20 years later and everyone has a mobile phone! Our society changes rapidly, leaving these people far behind. Help them adjust to society! Get involved – teach them, volunteer, listen to them.
- Forgive them! It could have been you and I in their place! Bob and George are souls in heaven, both equal, waiting to be placed into earthly bodies and families. Bob is put into an upper-middle class family that is financially secure and functional. The parents love each other and their is a strong network of family. Bob ends up being educated at a nice college and ends up with a good career. He meets a girl in college and they settle down and have a nice family. Bob never has one brush with the law. George, on the other hand, ends up in a dysfunctional family. His earthly father ran away while George was still in his mother’s womb. His mother is desperate for love and gets involved with a drug abuser who ends up beating George when he was a child. George knows hunger and poverty and feels desperate One day, he steals some food from a grocery store. You get the rest of the story. Bob and George could have been assigned the opposite families. George might be the person with the college degree and a good career while Bob is walking the streets in hunger, committing crime. Honestly, what would you do if everything was taken from you? Everything! Are we really all that different from those who end up in prison? Honestly? Forgive them and please be compassionate!
Upon the conclusion of lunch and warm goodbyes, it was time for Chad and I to leave and do a little New York City sightseeing (part 3).
Please visit their website at http://www.etcny.org/
Part Three – Mid-Town Manhattan
Chad and I left Exodus Transitional Community feeling good. This is what the Gramazin Journey is about – making connections with people around the country who want to change their lives and help others change their lives.
We took the subway up to Yankee Stadium, just to take some photos. Truthfully, it is far more my goal than it is Chad’s to visit as many professional sports stadium as possible on our nationwide trip.
The thing is that I have lost much of my interest in professional sports over the past decade. Perhaps it is 40+ years of being generally disappointed by being a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia Phillies, and Philadelphia 76ers. However, I think what really changed in me was the season of adversity I have experienced over the past 10 years. When you fight for survival day-by-day, when you battle discouragement every hour for a very long time, some things just seem more meaningless…such as professional sports. Who cares if your team wins or loses when you feel your life is in tatters?
However, despite this perspective on professional sports, I still have the crazy desire to visit as many stadiums as possible across America. In fact, if it didn’t cost $ 40 for a tour of Yankee Stadium, I would have bent Chad’s arm to take the stadium tour that was to start within 5 minutes of our visit to the stadium. Oh, well.
Imagine. You are on a people-packed subway car riding back to mid-town Manhattan. Everyone is minding their own business. At one of the stops, two young boys (perhaps 8 and 6 years old) and an older woman step into the car. The two boys are wearing Santa Claus hats and ties and festive vests. They are also carrying percussion instruments.
Uh, oh. This can’t be good.
As soon as the train begins to move, the kids begin to play. They had rhythm, at least I think so. However, it just seemed inappropriate. Talk about a captive audience! I looked around at the people. This is New York. There weren’t oohs and aahs or “isn’t that sweet!” Maybe that would have played well in the Mid-West. Instead, there was a corporate look on all the faces of “are you seriously making your kids do this to us, lady?”
One guy couldn’t take it any more.
“Shut the ______ ____!” he screamed.
The failure of any facial expression in the car to chastise the guy for screaming those words was approval of his sentiments.
Honestly, I kind of felt the kids were being used by the older woman. She seemed irritated they didn’t bring back any money when they went around the car holding their hats out after their performance. They didn’t seem to be impoverished. They seemed well-fed and well-trained – er, like kids would be in a scam.
I don’t know what to say. Maybe that family really was in need and I should have been generous. However, please, don’t play percussion instruments to passengers who have no choice on a packed subway car in New York City. I bet if I started to belt out a song I would have been silenced quickly. This woman knew her kids would get away with it and I believe took advantage of them and everyone else in the subway car.
As a lifelong Philadelphia area resident, I learned in my youth we are supposed to dislike New York. However, I’ve got to be honest – there is something really special about the city. There is magic in Mid-Town Manhattan, especially at Christmas time. Honestly, I’d like to spend more time there, when I didn’t feel so rushed to get everything done in one overcast afternoon. By the way, if you have a problem with claustrophobia, stay away from Mid-Town Manhattan in the Christmas season! In areas near the Radio City Music Hall, pedestrians were cramped shoulder to shoulder for block after block. I know Chad will have more to write about that experience, something he enjoyed less than I did.
Chad and I walked down 59th Street, crossing Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, and 5th Avenue, on the way to Central Park. We walked down 6th Avenue all the way to 34th Street, taking a brief detour to visit the Christmas tree and ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza. We enjoyed very tasty hamburgers at Five Boro Burger at 36th and 6th. Honestly, the staff was a little overwhelmed with the crowd in the restaurant but I’d recommend the food. We concluded our day in New York by walking 34th Street back to Penn Station where we caught the 6:14 New Jersey Transit train back to Trenton, NJ.
Photos of our visit to Manhattan.
|Morning train to New York City
||Leaving Trenton for New York City
|The 9-11 memorial at Ground Zero.
||One World Trade Center under construction
|Charles at the New York Stock Exchange
||World Trade Center Sphere in Battery Park
|Plaque about George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall
||Christmas tree at New York Stock Exchange
|New York Stock Exchange at Christmas
||Pennsylvania Station and Madison Square Garden
|Trinity Church graveyard
|The Bull near Wall Streat
||West Street, near Ground Zero
|A horse resting at Central Park
||A street scene in New York City
||Chad on top of the rocks in Central Park
|Chad visiting Yankee Stadium
||Charles looks lost on 6th Avenue
|Charles visiting Yankee Stadium
||Christmas decorations near Fox News and CBS on Avenue of Americas
|Horse drawn carriages in Central Park
||Ice skaters at Rockefeller Center
|Ice skaters in Central Park
||Macy’s from vantage point of 34th Street
|Macy’s from vantage point of 6th Avenue
||NBC in New York
|Radio City Music Hall
||Skyscrapers viewed from Central Park
|The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center
||The Empire State Building, partially obscured by low clouds
|Times Square between the buildings
||Tunnel in Central Park
|We enjoyed our dinner at 5 Boro Burger at 36th and 6th
||We wait for a ride on the New York City subway system