I don’t have time to help anyone. I am a very busy person.
I have a lot going on in my life and many responsibilities.
I manage my time well, but my schedule doesn’t allow for much flexibility.
I have to take care of myself first so that I can at some point help others.
My legacy is important to me and at some point, someday, I will be in a position to help others.
Many years ago, my stepfather, Andre would drive a Salvation Army canteen vehicle to three alarm or greater fires. It is two o’clock in the morning on a cold December day 1985 and the phone rings. It’s a big fire in the South Bronx, a bunch of buildings are dilapidated, falling apart, and burning out of control. A homeless person smoking crack started the whole blaze and now the buildings are burning and threatening families in the surrounding areas. The fire department sends NY’s finest to fight the beast and as the fire grows in size as word gets out across the airways for everyone to come and help.
Andre gets ready and quietly asks us if we want to go with him. My sister and I get up to go, running to put clothes on, like we are going to fight the blaze ourselves.
We get in the Delta 88 and jet through the streets of the Bronx as if the road is ours alone. Within ten minutes we arrive at the firehouse and start rummaging through the canteen truck, making sure there are supplies and everything is ready.
Coffee, cookies, cups, soups, tea, water…
Lights and sirens all the way, the old canteen is literally beat to shit, but Andre has his foot on the floor and we are dodging cars and obstacles with this vehicle that is something between an ice cream truck and an ambulance. No, there weren’t any seat belts. Yes, my sister, mother and I were either on the floor, the ceiling or somewhere in the air while Andre literally pulled a “Dukes of Hazzard” truck leap on the bumpy Bronx roads.
We get to the scene and the fire chief allows for passage beyond the fire lines. We park the truck and open for business. The fire is blazing through almost all the windows of multiple old fashioned apartment buildings. It’s cold out and the firefighters are covered in soot. Teams of men (at the time) are switching in and out of position to fight the fire. On their way back to the truck, they stop at the canteen and get a cup of tea or coffee.
There is this moment of transaction that is hard to explain, but I’ll try. They come to the truck and reach out their hands with soot, black darkened faces, exhausted with equipment falling off or temporarily pushed to the side of their faces. Stacey said she remembers it smelling like smoke, ash and the ion ozone smell of the early morning. “Cup of coffee please” and they smile looking you straight in the eye and say, “Thank you.” Why the hell are you thanking me? You are the one running into the fire and putting your life at risk in some cases for an abandoned building.
They would come individually, in pairs or in groups, picking up coffee and tea. Every one of them would thank us. Every one of them would talk to us. Most of them were exhausted and beaten up, but it didn’t stop them from taking a moment to tell us they appreciated our being there.
I came to believe the best of us come out when the world is on fire.
The dragon was beaten down by the massive well-coordinated attack of multiple firehouses. It was getting close to dawn and my sister and I had to go to school, and Andre needed to go to work. For years, we would go to help and volunteer. Andre never said why he was inspired to volunteer and we never discussed it. We just got in the car and ran. I was inspired by him and the firefighters. They gave it their all when they were needed and when the fuel in the tank was empty because of expending all their energy, they still had time to be kind while taking a cup of coffee or tea. This is probably one of the reasons that I became a firefighter in the Navy later on.
I realized personally that what I was looking for in life wasn’t fighting the fire itself, but the transaction of kindness. The moment in which I felt appreciated and I appreciated in kind. I also realized that this moment is not something that lasts or persists, it is something that manifests from behavior. We have to be a part of the creation of this moment and we have to let it go and recognize that it is not a tangible thing. That said, if we create enough of them and we participate in these microtransactions of kindness, they will grow from a behavioral perspective and spread. This isn’t “paying it forward” this is more “making the moment count.”
Each of us has an opportunity that does not require getting up in the middle of the night. It is this opportunity of being mindful in all of our transactions with other people to make the most of them and create something positive, memorable and something to be thankful for. It is more than “giving,” it is also about consciously receiving and recognizing. Being able to recognize something and identifying it out loud is a gift to the person who is giving.
Legacy is important to many people. Most of us are only a few generations from being forgotten. This means that we must create something that endures and goes beyond our name and our presence in the world. This requires an investment in now. The legacy will live in the microtransactions created today.
Andre is part of a very small community of people that find, stretch, and sacrifice time to help others. For all the people who want to have a legacy, there is no tomorrow in which you will find the time. However, you do have today.
Thank You, Andre