Unspoken subway connections: Why I will always buy street newspapers from the homeless

This story is part of a series of stories written by student journalists who participated in UB’s Foreign Reporting study abroad program in Berlin, Germany this past winter.

Public transportation is the glue in Berlin, and the U-Bahn is the core. The subway speeds up like bullets, runs through the whole city, and doesn’t stop all night. Inspectors only sporadically check tickets on the trains; the system revolves around honesty and trust.

My classmates and I took the U-Bahn almost every day on our winter abroad journalism program. After a long day trekking across the city with our professor, the hot air, warm lights, and cushioned seats gave us a few quiet moments of escape.

It was a particularly cold January in Berlin and the freezing weather left me shivering. I even bought extra clothes and every day I wrapped myself with three or four layers. One afternoon in the U-Bahn, I saw an old, skinny man in flimsy clothes walking through the subway car. He held newspapers and approached people one by one without a word, trying to sell his papers for spare change. When they realized what he wanted, most people turned around and looked away.

Finally, he came to me. His pale face and bag of bones startled me. I was expecting him to speak, but nodded.

Should I give him some change? What if he is not asking for money, but selling that paper? How much does he want? I wasn’t sure what to do or if I should speak to him. I felt guilty for not knowing what to do.

According to city statistics, Berlin has 10,000 homeless people and about 435,000 people who make less than $600 a month. Homeless people are more visible in winter because they huddle in the subway and sometimes ride the trains all night to stay warm.

The man left, staggering disappointedly toward another car. I saw more people turn him down. Most people did not want to look at him.

At that moment, a memory flashed in my head – a beggar asking for money on another night in Berlin. One man pulled his wallet out and the beggar was extremely grateful. The man smiled and walked away as if nothing had happened.

My thoughts pushed me toward the homeless man as the metro stopped. We both got off the train. As the crowds dispersed, cold wind blew on my face. I looked toward him; his shadow went the opposite direction of the winds. He walked fast. He seemed to want to disappear as soon as possible since he might not be able to afford a ticket for the ride. I ran to him without hesitation.

“Are you selling the newspaper? – I want one!” I asked him directly.

He nodded again, however, I only saw his lips moving with no voices coming out.

“Sir, are you selling the newspaper?” I asked in English.

He didn’t answer, but smiled.

He pointed to the newspaper, and showed me the price. I pulled out my wallet. He took the money with a shivery hand and stared at me, lips flipping back and forth, but without sound. But his eyes filled with thanks.

I looked around. My classmates were looking for me, I said goodbye to him. He stood still and watched me leaving with reluctance and raised his hands indicated say goodbye.

When I returned to the hostel, I noticed the newspaper was the August 2015 issue.

I smiled because it didn’t matter.

Next time I walk past someone selling a newspaper on the street, I will get one before the person asks. I’m not paying for the information. I’m taking care of another person who might not have the words to ask.

Rui Xu is a contributing writer. Questions and comments about this story can be directed to news@ubspectrum.com.