Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In olde New York.

About 35 years ago when I was just getting out of grad school and looking very hard for a job, I was talking to a prospective employer, an older man who was probably my father’s age.

I don’t remember anything about this guy, his name or the company he worked for. All I  recall is a story he told me.

He was taking the subway home from work late at night. These were the days when New York was not nearly so sanitized as it is today. The subways (when they ran) were rolling evidence that New York was Rome and the Vandals had gained the upper hand. The trains were filthy, covered with graffiti and it seemed that anarchy reigned.

My acquaintance got into a car that was empty except for a homeless man. Such a circumstance would be threatening even today. Back then, it was absolutely terrifying. We weren’t inured to homeless people as yet and New York was averaging over five murders a day.

But for whatever reason, he stayed in the car with the homeless man. And before long, they began chatting. They were two men, probably around the same age. One who was prospering, the other who was wrung out by life and tossed away like the old rags he was wearing.

They talked as the train clattered through 50th Street and 59th. Past 66th and 72nd and 79th. Past 86th and the abandoned ‘ghost station’ at 91st Street. Past 96th. Finally, my friend got up to leave at 103rd and Broadway.

“Come with me,” he said.

There was in those days a 24-hour Twin Donut on 105th and Broadway. Twin Donut was a pretty great place. It was clean, efficient and the donuts were sublime. It was empty at that hour and they sat at the counter and each had an old-fashioned donut and a bottomless cup of coffee. By this time, it was well after midnight, well past the hour when wives begin to worry.

The two men talked for a good hour. About life, about sports, about nothing at all. Finished, my acquaintance emptied his wallet. Gave the homeless man something like $60, which was a lot of money in those days. Shook his hand and said good night.

There were thousands and thousands of homeless in the streets of New York back then. Some government program had decided it would be smart to close the mental hospitals. Literally thousands spilled onto the streets of Manhattan. Single Room Occupancy hotels were being slum-cleared by real-estate developers. Literally thousands more homeless appeared. The problem seemed intractable. And of course, many of the homeless were addicted to drink or drugs or both.

Giving $60 to one, along with a donut and a cuppa did nothing to change either the universe or a life. And sociologists will tell you it’s not how you solve a social problem.

It was small, inconsequential, not getting to the root of anything. The guy telling me this story wasn't trying to elicit praise from me. All the same, he felt compelled to tell me the story. Maybe it was his way of howling at the moon. It doesn't accomplish anything, but sometimes it's all you can do.

The world can sometimes be cold, indifferent and, yes, even brutal. There's really very little we can do to change those realities. We can't stop cruelty, eradicate poverty or really make much of a difference. 

But once-in-a-while, maybe we can try.

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