Night of Death and Kindness

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50 years ago tomorrow, April 4, 1968, I flew from Pittsburgh to New York City for a job interview with Met Life.  I was about to graduate from Carnegie-Mellon’s business school.  I arrived in the late morning and had my job interview in the afternoon.  I was staying at the Commodore Hotel, which sat next to the Grand Central Station on 42nd Street, before flying back to Pittsburgh the next day.

I took a nap after the interview.  When I awakened in the late evening, I was hungry.  I decided I’d take the subway up to Harlem and eat some soul food.  As I left 42nd Street heading north on the subway, I noticed that they were fewer and fewer white passengers riding the subway.  Nobody bothered me.  Nobody paid much attention.  I was bright eyed and ready for an adventure.  The other riders looked tired and ready to go home.

When I got somewhere north of 100th Street, I got off the subway.  I went up the stairs to the street level and it was a war zone.  Building and cars were on fire.  Storefronts had the glass busted out.  People were yelling angrily at the top of their voices and I noticed a couple of people staring at me.

I stood wide-eyed and shocked trying to figure out what was going on.  I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around.  A tall black man asked, “What in the hell do you think you’re doing here?”  I responded, “What happened?”  He said, “They killed Martin Luther King”.  I said, “Oh fuck.”

The black man looked at me for a long moment and said, “Follow me.”  The station where I got off had the entrance to go back downtown on the other side of the street.  We went straight across the street and down the steps.  The black man never said his name.  He went all the way to the subway platform with me and watched me get on the train.  He told me, “Don’t look at anyone and stay on that train to Grand Central.”  I did what he said.

I know that the stranger probably saved my life.  The streets were full of angry people, as well they had a right.  The shock and sadness on my face registered as sincere enough that the man helped me.  I never took for granted what the stranger did for me.  He was my good Samaritan at a time when I really needed some help.

The next day I took a cab back to LaGuardia airport.  The cabbie took me north through the edge of Harlem and it looked like a war zone.  Fires were still smoldering.  The burned out cars were gray skeletons on blackened streets.  It was a long time ago, and I will never forget that night.  It was a night of death and destruction, and a night of kindness by a man that followed the spirit of Dr. King.  Thank you, stranger.  I hope the rest of your life has been good.

The picture is of my son-in-law, Marvin Green.  He is the kind of person that would have helped someone in my situation.  I don’t take him for granted either.

© Copyright 2018
Rev. Jim Hetzer
April 3, 2018

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