Use What You've Got: Never Give Up

One of the New York cranes.

One of the New York cranes.

We’ve all got something. Something that gives us a chance, that we can do that we can share with the world.  A skill or an idea, maybe a talent that we can put to work to move us forward, to improve our situation or to bring one of our goals a little bit closer. And even if we can only do one thing, while we can do it, we must. We must use what we’ve got, whatever it is. We must never give up. We must refuse to beaten.

It was already icy cold when the tree men arrived. They all seemed to appear at once, as if by magic, but actually they came from somewhere up north riding big trucks piled high with Christmas trees.

The tree men and their trees are offloaded onto the street corners of New York each year, where they live for weeks, pacing up and down the sidewalks in the freezing cold, selling their trees. And at night they sleep in freezing cold vans by the road. It’s a tough existence, not least because winter in New York can be brutal. But every year the tree men come – as if by magic.

I was sharing an apartment in Stuy Town on the East Side of Manhattan, just above Alphabet City. Opposite the corner of East 14th Street and Avenue A. My flatmates and I were broke. We wanted a Christmas tree, but without the cash to buy one we needed a plan. So we used what we had.

Our plan was to befriend the tree men, or the ones on our block anyway, and charm our way to a free tree. Each day we would take them thermos flasks of coffee and any food we could scrape together, and we’d chat. We’d spend a couple of hours each day drinking coffee with them in the freezing cold, talking about where we were from, where they were from and how we all got there, and then we’d head back to our ground floor Stuy Town apartment and they would climb into their vans for the night.

We developed a rota. One day I would go and take coffee to the tree men. Then next day it was Dom’s turn, and then Connie’s, and the day after that we’d all go as a group. We kept it up for weeks. Chatting away, passing the time, drinking coffee and stamping our feet as we blew into our gloved hands to stay warm. And eventually our plan worked and it paid off. The tree men gave us a tree.

Rightly pleased with ourselves, we took it home and set it up in the living room. It looked beautiful, standing there in all its glory. But it quickly dawned on us that we didn’t have any decorations, and any money we might have had for decorations we’d spent on coffee and food for the tree men. So we used what we had – and for some reason we had lots of origami paper. I don’t know why, perhaps I got it as a freebie from work, but for whatever reason we loads of the stuff.

And I knew how to fold paper cranes.

A paper crane is traditionally a symbol of hope and healing in challenging times, and if you can fold a thousand of them your wishes are supposed to come true. I don’t think we folded a thousand cranes that Christmas, but our tree and our apartment were filled with many hundreds of them. It looked fantastic, if a little odd. But we used what we had and our wish came true. We had a wonderful New York Christmas.

Twelve years later I was working on a market stall with my girlfriend (who later became my wife) in Brighton, on the south coast of England. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who work on markets. It’s unforgiving work and, like the tree men, you’ve got to be prepared to work hard for very little reward. Market work requires early starts, long days, it’s physical and often cold and wet.

I took a break to get lunch, and walking down an alleyway off the main street I turned the corner was stopped in my tracks by an old man sitting silently in a doorway. All skin and bones, his clothes were filthy and threadbare, yet with almost nothing left to give he was doing the one thing that he could. He wasn’t begging for money. He wasn’t pleading for sympathy or pity. With dignity, he was refusing to be beaten. He was using what he had.

I don’t think he noticed me, because his attention was focused intently on his boney fingers, which were carefully folding a piece of paper. When he finished folding he placed it gently on the ground, before picking up another sheet of paper which he began to fold into the shape of another crane. He was surrounded by them. Big and small, a mass of origami cranes spilled out of his doorway and filled the concrete around him, like a meadow of wildflowers.

I didn’t have much money to offer, but just the sight of all that colourful folded paper was worth everything I had in my pockets, and I was glad to give it to him. He had earned it ten times over simply by refusing to give up, even when all he had left to offer was this one small thing.

We have to keep moving forward. If there’s something we can do, anything at all, we must do it. If we have a skill or a talent, we must find a way to make it work for us, so that we can improve our lives and the lives of others. We must refuse to be beaten.

I don’t know what happened to that man in the doorway, but he used what he had and his meadow of cranes touched my heart – and in that moment my life was all the richer because of it.

I hope he folded a thousand of them.