“Mug money” is money that you carry in case you get mugged. Mug and then money. Simple, and yet I had never heard of that phrase until this past Monday when the beloved director of the organization where I work stood in front of a group of teens and explained how dangerous New York City used to be. His mother used to give him mug money, “a ten- or twenty-dollar bill”, and he carried this in his front pocket to and from school. He was mugged “once a year”, and so were his friends. It was life in New York City back then.
Now let me tell you a story so true, it stings.
Two years ago I lived in the same apartment in Brooklyn as I do now, but I had a female roommate at the time. Our building only has two apartments, and a SWF– that’s Single White Female for anyone who missed out on the 90’s film starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh– lived beneath me. It was us, and her, and the whole set-up was extremely cozy and the opposite of those sterile buildings most people think of leasing from. Four floors if you count the basement, three women, and lots of reason for concern when each of us began coming home at different times and discovering that our front door was open. Not just unlocked, but o-p-e-n. And we live on a busy street. I can vividly remember walking down the stairs one morning on my way to work and seeing the door swinging back and forth, which meant it had been open all night. Well come right on in, danger!
The text messages between us were helpful and cordial at first. We’d pass the SWF in the hallway and she’d look befuddled and remind us to lock the door when we were coming or going, and we’d say that we always do. Then we’d see it open again, and text her right back. Confident that she wasn’t looking to get shot, raped or mugged, we began blaming the landlord. But the landlord insisted that it wasn’t him, and that no matter how many times he had spilled paint, he was too responsible to leave us that vulnerable.
At one point I was so scared and agitated over the situation that I stood in the foyer to pray over the entire building. I started taking command of my rights as a believer, but my prayers were interrupted by the faint sound of a television. I could hear it coming from the basement, but when I plodded closer to the door it sounded like it had been shut off. I pulled at the doorknob leading down there, but it had locked from the inside which wasn’t like our landlord.
It turned out that the store next door was allowing a homeless man, who we’ll call C, to work in their store by day and then live in our shared basement space at night. The store has a metal grate pulled down at close of business, so C was forced to use our doorway as his only means of entering or exiting the building. Given that he didn’t have a key to lock the door behind him, the door was left as is, usually after the rest of us had gone to bed. I was livid when we discovered this, and I demanded the landlord kick him out. How dare this man leave our door open and jeopardize our safety? Perhaps we could have allowed you to live down there because you don’t seem like you’re a thief or a crook, but you flat-out disregarded our well-being and now? Ha! Good riddance. Good bye. And see if I care where you end up.
Oh, but listen, and listen to me good: things come full circle. Tests get repeated. Vines get pruned until they bring good fruit. Here’s how I know–
That beloved director of my organization – well many years after he was forced to carry mug money, he and many others went on to do something about the state of New York City. People got smarter, figured out that carrying mug money protects you, but what about your community?And they started looking for programs that make lasting change in the lives of desperate people. Today, a program now exists which takes formerly incarcerated and homeless men out of shelters, cleans them up, an then helps them earn income by cleaning the streets of New York City. Somebody had a good idea, and now this program is keeping men in a cycle of prison from ever going back.
I visited this same program with a group of teens this week, and it was eye-opening. There’s us, these no-rap-sheet-having blessed folks, mingling and learning more about these men– and then there are the men. Some look hardened to life. Some never went to prison, but instead fell into drug addiction which landed them on the streets. Some had violent pasts. But all of them, every single one, was on a road to redemption, and every single one had a story worth hearing. I cried during the introductory video shown to the group, I shook many calloused hands, and I smiled all day because I felt that society had a chance with rehabilitated men like this walking around. And of course, the teens loved it too. I was trying to get a few settled for lunch in the facility cafeteria when a voice called in my direction, “And what are you doing here?”
And there he was. There was C, in a bright green t-shirt and a finished plate of food in front of him, sitting at a table in the middle of these men. And he was one of them. And he was so proud. He was so proud that he’d made a good decision to earn income and get job training, and do something more with his life. He talked about possibly becoming a delivery truck driver, and I just stood there half-paralyzed with awe at the extent to which the mystery of God had just unfolded. He wasn’t upset with me for the living situation, in fact he seemed to have forgotten all about it. It was as if we had known each other long ago, and now we were two folks who just happened to meet again in a place where there’s no need to be ashamed for having once been homeless and helpless. Talk about a coincidence. Talk a coincidence and looking around to see if you’re being punked.
I don’t regret making it hard for him so that he had to leave. That would be a lie, and I don’t lie to to you.
But what I regret is not having the compassion to hear him out when he needed guidance, not having given him a hand up when he was at a low.
I have wished that Bruce Wayne was real multiple times. I have let my imagination actually go all the way there, pondering what it would be like if Commissioner Gordon really made his way to rooftops on dark nights and Batman saved us from danger.
I have never seen Bruce Wayne, but I’ve seen what I saw yesterday. And I know that despite how terrible the news on television is, how big our fears grow, that hope cannot be killed. That a man’s spirit cannot be crushed when he has hope. That hope can literally renew him from the inside out.
How God keeps His eye on the sparrow and me and you all at once I will never know. But He watches. Oh, how He watches.