The Sandwich Man

The Sandwich Man

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Sandwich Man

The capacity to care is the thing that gives life its deepest meaning and significance.

Pablo Casals

What would you do if you wanted to make a difference in the world, leave a mark or put a deposit on a ticket into heaven? Would you think big and pick the flashiest or most grandiose of acts? Or would you quietly persevere every day, doing one personal deed at a time?

Michael Christiano, a New York City court officer, rises every morning at 4 A.M., in good and bad weather, workday or holiday, and walks into his sandwich shop. No, he doesn’t own a deli, it’s really his personal kitchen. In it are the fixings of his famous sandwiches, famous only to those who desperately need them to stave off hunger for the day. By 5:50 A.M., he’s making the rounds of the makeshift homeless shelters on Centre and Lafayette Streets, near New York’s City Hall. In a short time, he gives out 200 sandwiches to as many homeless people as he can, before beginning his work day in the courthouse.

It started 20 years ago with a cup of coffee and a roll for a homeless man named John. Day after day, Michael brought John sandwiches, tea, clothes, and when it was really cold, a resting place in his car while he worked. In the beginning, Michael just wanted to do a good deed.

But one day a voice in his head compelled him to do more. On this cold, winter morning, he asked John if he would like to get cleaned up. It was an empty offer, because Michael was sure John would refuse. Unexpectedly, John said, “Are you gonna wash me?”

Michael heard an inner voice say, Put your money where your mouth is. Looking at this poor man, covered in ragged and smelly clothes, unkempt, hairy and wild-looking, Michael was afraid. But he also knew that he was looking at a big test of his commitment. So he helped John upstairs to the locker room of the courthouse to begin the work.

John’s body was a mass of cuts and sores, the result of years of pain and neglect. His right hand had been amputated, and Michael pushed through his own fears and revulsion. He helped John wash, cut his hair, shaved him and shared breakfast with him. “It was at that moment,” Michael remembers, “that I knew I had a calling, and I believed that I had it within me to do anything.”

With the idea for his sandwiches born, Michael began his calling. He receives no corporate sponsorship, saying, “I’m not looking for an act of charity that goes in the record books or gets media attention. I just want to do good, day by day, in my small way. Sometimes it comes out of my pocket, sometimes I get help. But this is really something that I can do, one day and one person at a time.

“There are days when it’s snowing,” he says, “and I have a hard time leaving my warm bed and the comfort of my family to go downtown with sandwiches. But then that voice in me starts chattering, and I get to it.”

And get to it he does. Michael has made 200 sandwiches every day for the past 20 years. “When I give out sandwiches,” Michael explains, “I don’t simply lay them on a table for folks to pick up. I look everyone in the eye, shake their hands, and I offer them my wishes for a good and hopeful day. Each person is important to me. I don’t see them as ‘the homeless,’ but as people who need food, an encouraging smile and some positive human contact.

“Once Mayor Koch turned up to make the rounds with me. He didn’t invite the media, it was just us,” says Michael. But of all Michael’s memories, working side by side with the Mayor was not as important as working next to someone else.. .

A man had disappeared from the ranks of the sandwich takers, and Michael thought about him from time to time. He hoped the man had moved on to more comfortable conditions. One day, the man showed up, transformed, greeting Michael clean, warmly clothed, shaven and carrying sandwiches of his own to hand out. Michael’s daily dose of fresh food, warm handshakes, eye contact and well wishes had given this man the hope and encouragement he so desperately needed. Being seen every day as a person, not as a category, had turned this man’s life around.

The moment needed no dialogue. The two men worked silently, side by side, handing out their sandwiches. It was another day on the streets of New York, but a day with just a little more hope.

Meladee McCarty

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