Saturday, August 8, 2015

Twelve Days Homeless

It was early fall, 2006 and I was walking quickly with friends toward my favorite French restaurant, Alouette, on Broadway and 96th. We were laughing loudly, caught up in the playful spirit of the moment, lunging toward the decadent feast I had anticipated all week. I loved being spoiled with the likes of duck confit. I was feeling particularly self-confident that night, partly because I was very happy with my outfit. It was warm for fall, so the Malaysian wrap that fluttered around my shoulders added color, not warmth, and I was also very pleased with my shoes. Just enough heel to force a certain walk—not my usual flat footed gait.

Fifteen feet from our destination I was jarred by a loud moan and spun around to see an old woman, hunched over, walking slowly and awkwardly away from us. With almost every step she moaned, but I had caught one loudly, exactly as I passed. It reached through my eardrum into my cochlea, traversed my auditory nerves and, with determined precision, skipped through my brain and straight into my heart. I was struck, as if by love and shock simultaneously. This pitiful human was crying out in pain, and starving to death by the look of her tiny, crooked body. She was desperate to be seen. But amid the swirl of flowing Upper West Side scarves and the staccato of stilettos, no one saw her. But I did see. 

I turned to my friends with a frantic glance, but, savvy about these things, with one look they educated me on the indefatigable specter of poverty in this, Their City, and hurried me into the restaurant. I was obliged to shake off my naive empathies like unwanted crumbs from my otherwise confident ensemble.

But she remained. She couldn’t be so easily dismissed. Her cry demanded it. She was of course long gone when we re-emerged with our stuffed bellies. But I tried to fool myself that, had I seen her again I would have stopped to help, given her food, done something in spite of my friends. I denied her my help that night, but her cry has never left me.

It was a winter evening in 2012, and below zero with the wind chill, much colder than normal for New York City. A group of us were walking to keep warm as we tried to hail a cab to our dinner meeting. I don’t remember the event, the location, or the coworkers I was with, but I remember the subway grate that a homeless man crouched over, leaning against a mailbox. You could easily miss him in the shadow. He was not trying to be seen. He was not moving or making a sound. His coat was lightweight, his hat was thin. My coat, on the other hand, was filled with down, and inside my down hood I word a thick hat. It was so cold that the wind froze the humidity in my nose as I breathed, so when I saw him out of the corner of my eye, I was taken aback by the sight. It wasn’t logical. 

Why was he there? What was he doing there? How could he sit still in this cold like that? Wherever you looked everyone was in constant motion, shrugging their shoulders, stepping back and forth as they waited for the light to change, or the bus to come, or the cab door to open. No one was standing still. 

But there he was. Not moving at all. Was the subway grate really that warm? I didn’t walk over to find out. I didn’t crouch down to see if he was ok. I didn’t even stop and take a good look at him. I stayed in the stream of anxiously moving bodies, rushing against the wind to warm destinations where we would be welcomed with food and conversation, and discuss topics like the size of the shrimp or the ingredients in the signature drink.

As we ate dinner I commented on the constant sound of sirens outside, which did not seem to let up at all. Someone replied matter-of-factly, “That’s because it’s so cold. They go around the city picking up the homeless who are freezing to death outside.” The perfunctory explanation hit me like an ambulance that had driven right through the plate glass window, past the matre d’, over six other tables and into my chest.  “Freezing to death.”

Of course he was freezing to death. And in the shadows he may not have been seen by the cops or ambulances going by. Maybe I had been his only hope. Maybe he really did freeze to death that night. 

He, too, remains with me. For, like the woman, he was too close to too awful of a fate to deny. Too unseen. Too easy to ignore. Both of them practically begging to be ignored. She was easy to ignore for her strange walk, loud moans and awkwardness. He, for the opposite: his complete silence and invisibility.

It’s been a few years since those encounters. Now, when I venture to the city I always keep an eye out for an opportunity to help and a few singles handy, right in my pocket so I can hand something out without stopping to think too hard or fish through my purse.  

Have you heard the one about the seminary professor? He wants to know what kind of priests his students will be, so he arranges the schedule and location for the final exam such that it will be almost impossible for the students to get to the exam on time, with the stipulation that the door will be shut, and they will get an F, if they are even one minute late for the exam.  Then he places himself in the shadows under a bridge that they must pass under to get to the exam. He wears shabby clothes and sprawls out as if he’s just fallen down and as each of the young people passes he reaches out and, in a pained voice, asks for help. I believe the story goes that one of the students stops and helps, accepting the fate of the F, while all the others rush by, just as I had done.

I think about that story a lot, and I’m the first to admit how screwed up my priorities were on the occasions I’ve shared with you. But I’m working on them.

I had a very different experience on Monday morning. I was going into the city and I had to take the bus, which I really dislike. The train is much better. I left home late due to a 7 a.m. international call that I wanted to have at home. I commuted into Port Authority Bus Terminal, rather than Penn Station.  My whole trip was a little off, and because of my 10 a.m. arrival time, the crowds were not as dense and the press of people not as tight as a normal commute.

When you head into the subways at Port Authority there’s this long, wide ramp with swinging doors at the top and at the bottom. With fewer people, it was easy to see that a homeless man was sitting on the floor, propped against the wall on one side of the ramp. In my normal fashion, I pulled two dollars out of my pocket and stopped to give them to him. But for some reason I couldn’t just hand him the two dollars and keep on walking. Maybe it was the slower pace of the crowd, or the fact that I was already late due to my call, but I just stood there and looked at him, puzzled by the look on his face as he took my money. His look seemed to say, “I guess this is the best you can do for me right now, and I have to be grateful for it, but it’s not enough.”

So I just stood there. And he just sat there, looking at my two dollars in his hand. He said, “Thank you,” but then he started talking to me. I guess he could tell that I had planted myself there for some unknown reason, and maybe I wanted to listen. Why else would I have stopped?

His name is Larry. He’s about 40 years old, tall, thin and handsome, which would be easier to see if he wasn’t homeless … but he’d only been homeless for 12 days. That was why he looked so different, why I had to stop. He didn’t have the hopeless, mechanical, resigned to the crumbs people throw his way demeanor I was so accustomed to. He was upset. He was frustrated. As he told me his story he fought back tears.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” he started out. And, yes, that was stating the obvious. But he was talking to me like a fellow human being. He was honoring me with our equality. A gift I could not ignore. So I listened intently to the events that led up to these first 12 days of homelessness as a man who wanted to work, wanted independence, was ready to do whatever that would take. But now, instead, was being daily humiliated, ridiculed and insulted by those who “don’t know what it’s like.”

He had landed a job training class for this week, but he had no way to get to it. He finally started to cry when he told me, “I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do.” In the end I bought him a weekly unlimited Metro Card so he could get to his training. He tried to give me all the dollar bills in his pocket to help with the expense, but I asked him to keep it and get some food. “I’m hungry,” he said. “I’m so hungry, but I’m not going to get food with this. I’m focused. I’m determined. I’ve got to figure out how to get laundry done. Everything is so hard out here. What do you do about deodorant? About a shower? About laundry?” And his eyes met mine with a sincerity of bewilderment that I could truly relate to. Yes, what DO you do?

I gave Larry a big, long hug before I left… but I left. I walked away. I didn’t take a selfie so I could remember him, or give him my number so he could keep me posted. But Larry has stayed with me all week long. It’s Friday night now, and maybe I should be watching my favorite show or reading a book with a cup of tea. But I can’t. Instead I drew a picture of Larry so that you could see him. It’s not a real likeness, just from memory, but I want to honor him and honor the rough road he’s on. 

I wish I had given him my number. I wish it as hard as I wish I had stopped to help the moaning woman or the frozen man. I believe in Larry. I wept as I prayed for him on my way to pick up my daughter today. I wept for the beauty of his spirit, his humility and determination. He is my equal. His frustration and helplessness call to me. He made some bad choices, sure. But he’s paying a greater price than I have ever paid for my bad choices, and I’m not going to say his were that much worse. I lost Larry when I walked away and got on my subway to work. I lost touch with his progress. How is he doing today? Did he do well in the training this week? His week is over too, is he happier than when I met him on that ramp with his dollar bills? He put that fistful of singles into my hand, but I gave them back. He didn’t understand so he quickly neatened them, ironing them out into a nice stack, 10 of them, to help pay for the Metro Card. 

If by 10 in the morning you’ve earned ten precious dollars for your troubles, along with a helping of insults and humiliation, I’m not going to reject your gift because they’re wadded up. I just want you to eat today. 

I had a granola bar in my backpack, which I should have given him, but I held it back for some crazy reason. I finally ate it this afternoon. All week I thought about Larry when I thought about that granola bar, purchased outside of my gate at Port Authority for my breakfast that day. But after meeting Larry I couldn’t eat till I eventually went out for lunch with coworkers.

Now that I’ve done my poor drawing of him, I can gladly keep Larry in my heart. His sad, determined, humble eyes telling such a story that they froze me in my tracks. If you see Larry, please give him my number. I want him to call me so I can buy him some new clothes and a monthly, instead of a weekly, Metro Card.

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