That Time I Met a Homeless Prophet in the NYC Subway

It was a Sunday in early December a few years ago and I was out helping homeless women, as per my project. I noticed a homeless woman on the downtown platform of a cavernous NYC subway station. She was standing directly in front of an empty wooden bench, apparently facing the bench with a massive plastic bag over her hair (I assumed she had dreadlocks beneath).

For the record, I decided early on to not approach any homeless woman who wasn’t actively panhandling. There’s no reason to assume they want attention from me or anyone. This particular day, something powerful compelled me to try something different. I’m so grateful I did.

Due to the plastic bag, it was difficult to ascertain precisely in which direction the woman was looking but she was clearly rocking, as if in prayer or meditation. Passersby gave no impression that they noticed or even saw her. I inched closer and barely whispered, “Excuse me?”

Her head snapped up in an instant. Not startled or angry. It felt more like she was expecting me.

Her eyes sparkled and her smile illuminated the dank underground environs. Her features are what you might call delicate. She maintained direct eye contact with me but remained silent. I felt a sense of absolute calm.

“I thought perhaps you could use some of what’s in this bag,” I whispered as I held out a small cloth bag filled with food and supplies. She took the bag and gazed at it as if it were a gift from the heavens. Then she spoke, in a gentle Island accent.

“Thank you,” she said as she returned her gaze to mine. “You! You understand the message. H-E-L-P. It should be broadcast everywhere. It should be playing in all the theaters. Everyone must hear it. It’s our only chance. The only thing we can do (pause) until God returns.”

I felt myself unexpectedly overflowing with emotions as I stared at her. She held the bag up, smiled, and repeated: “Thank you.”

“Oh no,” I stammered, “thank you!” Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I began to back away but not before adding: “Please be safe out here.”

“I am safe and will remain safe,” she replied in a clear, confident voice, before offering a blessing that gave me goosebumps: “As will you.”

After my first meeting with a homeless prophet, I began looking for her as I made my rounds. And soon enough — on yet another Sunday — as I was walking through a different labyrinthine subway station, there she was! She was standing near a staircase, one level up from the trains.

Again: leaning forward, gently rocking, plastic bag on her head. Again: passersby gave no impression that they noticed or even saw her.

I subdued my excitement so I could approach slowly and respectfully. When I got within a couple of feet, I could see that the plastic bag was slightly askew and thus revealed what appeared to be the roots of her dreads. I unexpectedly discovered that her hair is what we might call “salt and pepper.” I don’t know how old I believed her to be, but she appeared ageless in our initial encounter.

“Excuse me?”

Again, her head snapped up. When she saw me, she clasped her hands together in front of her heart and an almost imperceptible “ahh” slipped from her mouth.

“Hi!” I exclaimed, no longer attempting to hide my excitement.

She pointed at me. “I knew you’d come back!”

“I brought this for you!” I declared, handing her a small handbag of supplies.

She smiled and closed her eyes for a few seconds. When she opened them, her eyes were wide and vibrant. “I feel God’s love here,” she stated.

With her right hand, she reached up and made a motion like pulling the string to turn on a ceiling light. “I can feel God’s love here between us. Do you?”

“Yes, I certainly can,” I replied. She smiled and looked into my eyes. Once again, I felt as if we were somehow alone in the frenetic train station.

“I’m happy to see you,” I said. “I’ve looked for you.”

“Look for me again on the 29th,” she responded.

“I promise I will. (pause) I’m Mickey. What’s your name?”

“I am Theodora.”

She reached out her hand as did I.

I felt the wise energy in her touch.

“I’ll see you on the 29th,” I promised as I inched away.

Theodora held up the bag and said: “Thank you, Mickey.”

(Side note: Theodora means “Gift of God.”)

I looked and looked for Theodora on Dec. 29 (and again on that date the following year). I covered every inch of the two subway stations at which we spoke. I did not see her. I even had a special gift for her: a beautiful, colorful, decorative scarf.

I carried it with me every single day for many months, hoping to see my inscrutable friend — although I must admit I sometimes wonder if she was more apparition than flesh and bone. Who knows if I will ever cross paths with Theodora again?

Either way, I often think of her. And I can still feel the connection that was somehow there between two random strangers in a random malodorous and teeming subway station on a random Sunday in a random December.

And I feel divinely blessed.

Mickey Z. is the creator of a podcast called Post-Woke. You can subscribe here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on New York City streets. Spread the word. Read other articles by Mickey.