Thursday, October 23, 2008

I Looked Homelessness in the Face and Said, “Not Today, Sir”


Those of you with blogs of your own... Do you ever wish a post would just appear in your Inbox some morning, already written for you? It turns out, sometimes that actually happens! Or, it does if you have a friend who's a former blogger who still has a story or two in him every now and then.

Friends, our pal Darren is back. At this rate, we may just convince him to reinstate his own blog yet. In the mean time, I'm happy to host his guest posts. Take it, Darren.


I have lived in New York City off and on for more than eleven years now.

Well, sort of. I mean, I stayed in New York for ten weeks during the summer of 1997 for a college internship and then returned permanently in the fall of 2000 before leaving in 2006 only to come back in 2007. Did you follow that? Eh, it doesn't matter.

Let's just say that my relationship with New York has spanned enough years that I could be one of those annoying New Yorkers who say things like, "The Lower East Side? The Lower East Side, man?! Man, I remember a time when these college kids woulda been scared shitless to find themselves in the Lower East Side! Now they got Starbucks down there and Urban Outfitters and I don’t know what all…"

In the two decades I've spent in New York (sounds even more impressive, huh?), I have never once given a homeless person money. Not a single dime. It's not that I don't feel sorry for homeless people or don't realize that many if not most of them are suffering from mental illness or from addiction or don't think that there's something absurd about the idea that anyone living in the wealthiest nation on the planet should be homeless. Wait. Let me see what the stock market is doing right now.

Yep, okay. Still the wealthiest. Wait! Yep, still the wealthiest.

I don't give money to homeless people because the cynic in me doesn't believe the man begging for change on the steps of the uptown Sixty-sixth Street 1 stop has been saving the change he's received from all the various subway passengers who have dropped money in his paper cup and that my twenty-five cents will be the twenty-five cents that will finally allow him to get a shave and haircut, buy a passable off the rack suit, run copies of his long dormant resume off at Kinko's, get a job at an accounting firm willing to take a chance on a long shot, and reclaim the long-suffering wife and children he left all those years ago when the grind of our work-a-day world just became too much and he "dropped out for a little while." No, the cynic in me tells me that that twenty-five cents is going directly toward the purchase of a pint of Nikolai 100 Proof. I don't want to be an enabler, teach a man to fish, etc., etc., which is why I prefer to donate a little money every year to homeless outreach organizations and shelters and that kind of thing*.

So you can imagine the irony or whatever you'd call it when I gave not a dime nor twenty-five cents nor even a dollar to a homeless man last night after work but a whole twenty bucks. To put this into perspective for you, I cancelled my Netflix membership because $16.99 a month?! Oh, that money could go toward so many other things every month!

I'm a tightwad is what I'm saying.

It all began after leaving the grocery yesterday evening after purchasing cottage cheese and getting twenty dollars cash back for the Laundromat I'd be going to later that night. As I walked along the sidewalk, I saw a hulking man in dreadlocks, dressed from head to toe in orange, and lumbering right down the middle of the path directly toward me. He was wobbly, and I could smell even from that distance that he was drunk. He yielded none of the sidewalk to me, and we collided. I felt his hand catch on the plastic grocery bag I was carrying and then release a second later. I turned to see if our knocking into each other was intentional on his part and saw him bend down to pick some of his belongings up off the pavement. He seemed fine, I was fine, no harm-no foul, so there was no reason to stick around.

On the next block, I stopped to tie my shoe, and as I was finishing with the lace, I saw a huge orange mass fill up the corner of my left eye. "This can’t be good," I thought to myself.

I'm not a racist person. I'm not. Whatever my thoughts are about people of different color is learned behavior from growing up in a predominantly white suburb and raised by parents who responded to driving through the rougher parts of Indianapolis by referring to black people euphemistically as "minorities" and telling my brother and I in hushed tones to lock our car doors. To this day, my mother will warn me whenever my visits to my home city coincide with "Black Expo" – an annual convention held, according to the organization's website, "to be an effective voice and vehicle for the social and economic advancement of African-Americans" – to stay inside the house. For the love of God, stay inside the house! "It's Black Expo," she'll whisper as if that sums up everything there is to know.

So as one of the only white people in my predominantly black and Latino Harlem neighborhood, I am forever resisting the ingrained response to view all around me with a case of raging heebie-jeebies. "Don't panic," I told myself as I stood to face the towering dreadlocked man in orange. The one who had followed me for an entire city block. The one reeking of beer. "I bet he just wants to talk about Obama."

"Can you hear me?" he asked.

"What?" I asked back.

"Can you hear me now? Because I've been calling after you for a few minutes now." His lower teeth were brown nubs.

"Oh! Right. I had my headphones in." Which was true. I hadn't heard a thing as I had been listening to my beloved collection of soft rock hits from the nineteen seventies, AM Gold. As the collision and shoe tying and everything else had transpired, I had been on Volume Four, 1974, which is why Charlie Rich's "The Most Beautiful Girl" will forever remind me of this man in orange.

"But you can hear me now," he said more than asked.

"Yes...," I said with hesitation.

"All right. Let me tell you what happened." The man in orange went on to relate his version of events; how I had knocked into him, caused the fingers of his right hand extreme pain as they caught my grocery bag, and he had dropped the possessions in his hand to the pavement as a result.

Whenever faced with a difficult situation or wrongdoing on my part, I think I do what a lot of people do and that's play dumb. I have so perfected the "What? Really?!" response to confrontation that I'll gladly take on any lie detector in the world. But last night I went beyond playing dumb and entered full acting mode. James Lipton is going to want to arrange for me to come by the Actors Studio because I can now tell him and every one of the eager young faces in the audience with authority about "the craft" after last night's performance.

"Wait, wait, wait," I said as I squinted my eyes and shook my head. "What are you talking about?"

My tone and expression might have said, "What on earth does this have to do with me?" but the man in orange wasn't buying it. "I know you know what I'm talking about," he said, "because I saw you turn around and look." Sigh. Caught in my own lies by a man who chugs forties of Ballantine the way a runner might down bottled water after a marathon.

"Oh, right," I said. "Gee, I'm sorry. I thought we had just bumped into each other."

"No. We didn't," the man said. "You caught my fingers."

"Oh, well, gosh. I'm really sorry." I might have tossed in a nervous "golly" and a "gee-willikers" in there for good measure, but I'm not sure.

"Uh-huh. Well-well-well, that don't matter because I want to show you this." At this point he produced his glasses. The right lens had a large crack in the center. The crack might have been old, it might have been fresh, but at this point, it was his word against mine and he was much bigger than me.

"Now this is a problem," he went on. "You see, because I gotta be at work, so what I want to know is: Can you come with me to LensCrafters?"

"Um. No," I said.

"No? But you see, I have to get to work, and I don't have time – You can't come to LensCrafters with me? This is going to cost me."

"No, I really can't. I have to get somewhere... for this thing..."

"Well, how am I supposed to pay for this? There's nothing you can do?"

"Yeah, wow... That's rough..." Even as the words were leaving my mouth, I was reaching into my pant pocket for the twenty dollar bill I had gotten from the checkout girl at the grocery not five minutes before. I'm not sure if it was me or time itself, but the whole process seemed to move in slow motion. I love no other movie more than I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, and this moment reminded me of Indiana Jones jumping past poison darts, leaping over chasms, and outrunning the enormous boulder only to be forced into relinquishing the golden idol to the evil rival collector. This was Fate saying to me, "Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away."

"This is what I can do," I said, holding out the twenty dollar bill and swallowing hard.

The man in orange turned half way around sulkily. "Man! That's it – This is going to cost me seventy or eighty dollars!"

"It's all I have!" I insisted.


"I swear! Do you want me to show you my wallet? It's empty!" NOTE TO SELF: Never offer to show your wallet to a stranger who has been following you.

"No, I don't wanna see your wallet! Aw, man!" Suddenly, the man caught himself. "Well, now, okay. Okay. You did help. You did. I have to give you that. You helped."

I sensed that I was being let off the hook, so I started to turn to walk the other way. "I'm really, terribly, gosh-diddily-darn sorry," I said. Why do I turn into Ned Flanders whenever I'm nervous?

"Yeah, yeah," the man in orange said.

"I hope you get everything fixed," I said not too convincingly.

The man too had turned to walk in the opposite direction. "Yuh-huh," he said over his shoulder. I heard him continue to grumble about the twenty dollars as he went.

I knew exactly how he felt.

* Insert the words "will" and "one of these days" on either side of the word "prefer" in the second part of that sentence.


3carnations said...

Wow. That's quite a story. So you did notice that something happened? How did you cause his glasses to break?

I'm really glad it ended well. And yeah, the offering to show him your wallet...I'm glad that part worked out, too. :)

Poppy said...

That sounds like an intentional run-into.

A few weeks ago I had a big smile on my face as I walked through my own neighborhood in Queens and some asshole who didn't like that I was happy intentionally moved to the center of the sidewalk and gave me a nasty look to intimidate me. I looked the foot up into the air that I needed to in order to see his eyes and I gave him the "don't fuck with the Poppy" look as I BARRELED toward him. He moved. I went back to smiling. That's the one thing about here -- people who are crazy are always trying to insert themselves into your life here, make their problems your problem. But... no, your problems are not, in fact mine, thanks.

Allison said...

For the record, my sole visit to Indianapolis was during Black Expo, but Brent and I made it out of downtown just fine.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize until I read this that he was in ORANGE. Do you think he had just escaped from prison? Did you notice shackles? Do the kids still wear orange in prison these days?

Noelle said...

That's why I only started carrying cash after I moved out of Manhattan.

Courtney said...

Yikes. No matter the skin color, that is a scary incident. I'm glad you happened to have $20 on you.

I agree with Poppy - it sounds like an intentional run-into.

Anonymous said...

Yikes. What an awkward moment. I agree it was sure to be deliberate. I'd have been scared I was about to get my lights punched out.

steve said...

This entire post left me coated with a thin film of discomfort.

Your mother sounds much like my father, who also isn't very good at hiding his racism.

Anonymous said...

3carnations, his glasses were in the hand that I knocked in to. Even if I did actually cause the crack, I don't feel responsible because MOVE OVER!

Poppy, oh, smiling in New York. That's just not done. You're lucky he didn't try to kill you!

Allison, you are braver than I. Don't you know that Black Expo exists solely so that conventioning African Americans can murder white people shopping at the Circle Center Nordstrom?!

Heather, not unless they're issuing orange knit sweaters to inmates these days. My first thought when I saw him, though, was, "Man! You orange!"

Noelle, so you could bribe crazy homeless people to go away?

Courtney, agreed. White, black, it was scary. The bump was probably intentional. But I have to give that guy credit for quickly seeing how to take advantage of it. I don't think that fast sober let alone as loaded as he was.

12ontheinside, it was hard to resist the urge not to run away with my arms flailing like an eleven year old girl. I'll admit that.

Steve, yep. I think "a thin film of discomfort" pretty much sums up my whole life up to this point.

Anonymous said...

awww darren. good to read you again.

Unknown said...

Darren!!! Hi!

And oh my God, people. This post is SO SPOT-ON. The hobos here are ruthless. And crazy. And crazy-making.