In December 2007 when I was 15, my mother and I went to New York to visit my eldest sister who was working there. I was so excited. I’d been lucky to have travelled many times but I’d never been to visit a big city specifically, and I’d never gone abroad at this time of year – Christmas time! Friends at school moaned enviously about me being able to go Christmas shopping at Macys. I’d never heard of Macys, but shopping isn’t a big interest of mine anyway. I was simply looking forward to experiencing the happy buzz of the Big Apple during the festive season.
The journey into New York was up and down like Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. Having arrived in Philadelphia, our smaller plane was delayed because of bad weather. I drank a hot chocolate that had way too much sugar in it as I waited for us to be told we could board. Finally that time came, only for the pilot to enter the cabin and tell us that freezing rain made it too unsafe to attempt a take-off. The 15 or so passengers looked at each other in disappointment, wondering when we would get to the city.
An hour later, like some sort of Christmas miracle, a bus arrived to drive us passengers into Manhattan. We clambered on cheerfully, as if we were a gang of friends going on holiday together. As I made my way towards the bus, I noticed a woman talking to a member of staff. She looked confused about what was happening, but eventually began pushing her pram with two babies inside towards the bus, struggling to lift it up the step.
As the bus set off, the passengers were already chatting to each other, feeling more optimistic about reaching our shared destination. A group of Italian men sat at the back of the bus started singing, making everyone laugh. There was a shimmering of Christmas lights from billboards on the highway. The lady with the infants was trying to hold both her baby and her toddler but was clearly finding it difficult. She didn’t seem to speak English well, but on seeing her struggling, a blonde lady offered to hold the toddler. As the bus continued to thunder along, he was passed around the passengers. Even the jolly Italian men held him. Then the sparkling skyscrapers of Manhattan came into view and my stomach somersaulted with excitement.
Finally the bus arrived outside of La Guardia airport. Passengers said their farewells and wished each other a great trip before going their separate ways. My mum arranged a taxi for us whilst I stood outside shivering as I watched the lady with the babies put them in the pram and then look around uncertainly. Inside the airport, mum bought my hungry self a sandwich to eat, but when I took my first bite and saw the lady look around in despair as she struggled to be understood by the airport staff whilst attending to her babies, I lost my appetite. She seemed lost and I wanted to help and let her know that she wasn’t alone, so I went over and held out my sandwich to her. A huge smile formed on her beautiful face as she took it from me gratefully and began feeding her children. Mum asked where she was from, to which she replied Senegal. We didn’t ask how long she planned to stay for. Her two boys with their tiny faces looked up at us shyly. They were called Norbert and Robert – cute names for even cuter children.
Suddenly a man came and told us that our taxi had arrived. This was the moment I’d been waiting for – finally I would be driving into New York City! But I didn’t want to take it; I didn’t want to leave the lady and her boys until I knew she was safe and sound. My mum looked reluctant too, talking to the staff to ensure they would help the lady. The man reminded us about the taxi. We couldn’t keep the driver waiting. The lady hugged and thanked us with a brave smile. I got in the taxi where there were two other women going out to the theatre.
Driving through the city, the buildings outside gleamed with cheerful Christmas lights, but the colours were blurring into one as tears fell from my eyes. Rather than feeling happy and excited like I had always expected to at this moment, I was worrying about the lady and her children, hoping they would be okay.
This was a very new and humbling experience for me. I was 15 and relatively naïve. I had grown up in a rural area where I wasn’t used to seeing people struggle or be vulnerable. I thought about all the people coming to New York for a Christmas treat and having a wonderful time, spending their money in shopping malls, restaurants, theatres and bars without a care in the world. What was this lady going to be doing? Where would she be on Christmas Day?
During my trip, I encountered many struggling people of all backgrounds and nationalities. I learned through my own eyes that just because a city has a certain reputation for wealth and opportunity, it doesn’t mean everyone can access it. It’s around Christmas that this issue seems to become even more prominent, when many people become materialistic-minded and think about what they want for themselves. The Christmas period tends to encourage a haven of greed, rather than appreciation of need. But for me this experience really illustrated that there is more to Christmas than the giving and receiving of expensive pleasures; it’s a time when we should also think about being generous to others, in other ways.
Every year at Christmas, I always think back to this experience, and wonder where in the world the lady is now, what she’s doing, what the boys are like. I hope she can remember me too.
About the Author
Shannon Colman is a 22 year old History graduate of King’s College London. She enjoys discussing socio-cultural themes of travel on her blog www.soleseeking.com. Catch her on Twitter @ShanSoleSeeking and check out her last piece for UYD here on the greater benefits of a helping hand.