What a Little Boy’s Surprising Exchange With a Homeless Man Taught me About Openness and Creativity

We have been raised to fear the yes in ourselves
— Audre Lorde

Jermaine looked to be about seven years old -- an age where life is driven by curiosity and unabashed exploration. He was fascinated by the scene unfolding in front of him on the subway car we shared. A man, who looked homeless, stumbled onto the train, covered in a smudged and stretched all blue sweat suit outfit. His t-shirt gaped at the seams, and had “Choose Jesus” splashed across the center.

I aptly stuffed my earphones into my ears ready to tune out the man’s tirade. He started with yelling to the subway car about his current plight, and his needs. His rant then dived into personal stories, a glimmer of a life before hardship. It’s a standard sight on New York City subways, a mirror of unaddressed mental illness that tears your heart apart a little every time you see it, leaves you helpless even when you give the dollar they beg for, and washes you in numbness so potent that turning eyes and ears away from the sight seems to be the short term answer to a problem that needs to be solved, but doesn’t have a simple, silver bullet solution.

I turned my music down as soon as I heard Jermaine (his name divulged when his mom called him) engage the man with the innocent question, “Do you like knock knock jokes?”

“Hmph, why...yes I do!”

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Birdie Who?”

“I’m an Owlll not a birdie!”

The man chuckled, and pressed his back against the silver pole in the center in the car meant to keep you stable when riding standing. He slid to the floor, his swollen, distended feet exposed through open toe sandals coming apart. The boy began asking the man questions --- where he was from, where he was going, and why his shirt said ‘choose jesus.’ Jermaine’s mother looked bemused but didn’t interrupt the exchange. Typically, parents would quickly stop their children from engaging with someone who looked atypical and struggling, afraid they could be dangerous and unhinged threats, but she was open to letting her son dialogue with this man.

As we barreled underground past Dekalb Avenue, going deeper into Brooklyn, Jermaine and his mother got ready to exit.

“Have a good day!” Jermaine said in a jolly goodbye as he left the train car with his mom.

The man had made genuine human connection, probably the first in sometime. We had all been watching the exchange between him and Jermaine, curious as to how this little boy, oblivious to social expectations, could be so unfazed and willing to be open.

Two stops away from my exit, the man began talking to the wider car, stating, “We all live in these bubbles. Private bubbles separate from each other! I just want to burst people’s personal, protective bubbles!” and he stuck his finger in his mouth, snapping it across the inside of his cheek to make sharp pop noises,  indicating what the popping of these hypothetical bubbles could sound like.

That evening subway ride, left an impression on me, and made me ponder about our relationship with openness as we get older. Experience and wisdom makes us understandably cautious. We create these protective (jello like) bubbles both physically and psychologically against perceived outside threats, judgement, and unpleasant experiences. Fear becomes a central part of the lens we’re socialized to use to view the world. We zig zag through life like we’re being chased by cheetahs, even when there’s no visible threat to be found.  

Being closed and protected at all times hinders access to a central part of the problem solving and creativity that can and does fuel our lives, and studies have shown that openness to new experiences can boost creativity.

When you open your mind to new experiences and information, it can lead to new connections and possibility. When we’re young we’re unconditioned from what is socially acceptable, open to many possibilities and experiences with the world. Jermaine’s unabashed curiosity and openness in an unconventional situation reminded me that the more we can generate this child like curiosity into our lives, the better chances we have to benefit from the creative lessons and wonder unexpected experiences can bring. Let your guard down a bit today, and see where it leads you.