One of the hardest things about living in the New York City metropolitan area is the constant exposure to human suffering. You can’t escape it. In most U.S. cities, the poor and disenfranchised are comfortably isolated and, therefore, invisible. However, whether due to sheer numbers, foot-traffic or accessibility to public transit, this is not the case in New York City. Despite the ‘clean-up’ over the last few decades, human suffering is still very visible here. Homeless people dot the path from my apartment to the World Trade Center, on both sides of the Hudson. This is difficult not only because I have to see them* but also because, as I walk by and do nothing, I have to confront this very reasonable question (and its ultimately uncomfortable conclusion):
“How can a good person walk by and do nothing?”
In other places, it is much easier to forget that you are doing nothing. It’s not as easy here. Mostly, I walk by. Sometimes, I give them money, usually when they aren’t asking.
When my father was visiting from out of town, an old man in the subway started giving his usual speech in a loud voice designed to make people ill-at-ease, “You don’t think it can happen to you, but homelessness can happen to anyone, people!” My eyes dropped the the floor approximately four feet in front of me and lost focus; my face lost all expression. Yes, after two years of living in the city, the New York City subway stare has been perfected for just such occasions. My father, on the other hand, was fresh off the boat from rural, northeastern Oklahoma. He is a generous person, who gives away a considerable portion of his modest income. As I am a recreational anthropologist, I watched him closely to see how he would react. He was uncomfortable. He fumbled with his wallet. He muttered, “Is he an alcoholic?” (The man was almost certainly sober, a little too well-dressed but quite possibly homeless.) My father glanced around at the other people in the subway, doing nothing. He glanced at my husband and I, doing nothing. After seconds that seemed like hours, the doors opened–like all of the people in the subway knew they would. They poured into the landing, leaving the man shouting to no one.
If indifference is contagious, so is generosity. Sunday night, my husband and I were running near the river with our dogs. A young woman waved us over. The young man she was with held up his cell phone and motioned towards a tiny older woman standing next to them. “Are you from the area?,” he said, “Do you know where Poplar Street is? I think she must be trying to get to Union City or Jersey City, because it’s not in Hoboken.”
It was dark. I squinted. The tiny woman, who appeared to be in her sixties, had a backpack on wheels and a few belongings. She was apparently lost without a cell phone or even a precise address of where she was heading. She wanted to take a bus, but was confused about what bus to take or where to catch it. She had come from Queens and was trying to get to her daughter’s house. She muttered something about cancer in a heavy Peruvian accent.
We eventually deduced that she was trying to make it up to the Heights. My husband tried to give her directions: It was between two and three miles away, but up a cliff and through some dark streets. She was tiny, old and carrying luggage; the woman waved her hand with worry: no, not possible. I suggested she take a cab. The young women, in her late teens or early twenties, who had waved us over whispered, “I don’t think she has money for a cab.” The older woman said she had money for a bus. She held out a few coins she had been clenching in her fist. It wasn’t enough for a bus ticket. At that point, the young woman held out her wallet, “Do you want us to give you money for a cab?” The old woman shook her head no. “I will take the bus,” she said.
My husband started giving her directions to the Path station, where she could catch a bus. Perhaps due to the young couple’s thoughtfulness, I became increasingly concerned about the situation. The Path station was several blocks in the wrong direction. More importantly, the old woman did not have enough money and did not know where she was going. Her English seemed pretty good, but I wasn’t convinced she was understanding everything we were saying to her. I envisioned her lost for hours, wandering in the dark alone, under a super blood moon eclipse. “Look, we can just give her a ride,” I said, “Why don’t we just give her a ride?” My husband looked skeptical. We were on foot. Our vehicle was over a mile away. “She doesn’t have enough money for a bus,” I said, “Let’s just give her a ride.” He agreed.
I turned to the older woman with the backpack, “We can give you a ride, but our car isn’t here. You will have to wait here for fifteen or twenty minutes. Do you want a ride?” She nodded. “Aw!” exclaimed the younger woman in a voice generally reserved for puppies and babies.
My husband and I returned in twenty minutes as promised. The young couple was still waiting with the older woman, presumably so she wouldn’t have to wait in the dark alone. Young people these days! They helped her into the back seat of our car and waved goodbye.
One of my dogs lunged towards our vehicle’s new occupant. I pulled the dog back into my lap and said over my shoulder, “It’s not easy to get here from Queens.” The old woman shook her head, “No, but my daughter needs me.”
On the way to her daughter’s house, I asked the woman about her life but not her daughter’s cancer. The woman said she was from Peru. She told us where to go if we ever visit; she told us to be careful and to go with a tour group.
She told us about her children and her grandchildren, about how she raised her children alone. “It was very hard,” she said, “but they turned out okay.” The daughter she was going to stay with was 46, with children ages 14, 8 and 7. Three of her grandchildren were in the navy. She said that one of her grandsons had come home from Afghanistan as a surprise for her 80th birthday. “That was a nice surprise,” she said with that knowing twinkle of grandmothers everywhere. “You don’t look 80!” I exclaimed. “I always try to work hard,” she replied.
She recognized her daughter’s block, and we helped her out of the car. “I am very glad I met you; I don’t know what I would have done,” she said, “I will pray for you everyday!” I think she meant it.
*I actually consider the inability to hide from uncomfortable truths to be one of the great benefits of living in a city, and I am thankful for it. I have approached this introduction with a purposeful callousness that I hope will be self-evident. In addition, I hope that will also be self-evident that the uncomfortableness of witnessing homelessness is really not even worth mentioning when compared to the pain of being homeless.