My mom came to visit me, and I showed her my life in New York. Inevitably, we were walking down some random street, with a comfortable break in conversation, when we both saw a man, sitting on the ground, with a cup and cardboard, asking for change. She asked if I ever “got used to it?” I struggled with the answer and still do. Am I used to it? To seeing people hungry on the streets, smiling, regardless of their past and their present.
There are a lot of people living in Manhattan. Sometimes too many, but I am wondering if I am the only one who is constantly thinking about the homeless men and women, sometimes teenagers, I see on the streets everyday.
I have come to recognize some of them, again perhaps too many. There is the man who says “good morning, beautiful” on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker. There’s the three or four men on the corner of Mercer and W 4th street who sleep as I walk to my early morning Spanish class. One of the NYU security guards wakes them up and tells them they have “five minutes.” Frankly, I wouldn’t mind. Let them sleep. And then there is always someone, not the same person for more than a week, sitting outside of the Mickey D’s on 3rd Ave and St Marks.
Sometimes their boards ask for money. Other times their boards tell their story. Some ask for money to get home. Others just ask for money straight up. Anything helps.
I try and take an extra piece of fruit from the school dinning halls to give to anyone on my way to class. If I have left overs, I leave the take away bag next to someone sleeping, hoping they wake up before it’s too cold. In the end, I know they need more, but if I took five bananas from the dinning hall, every time I ate a meal, it would become my mission to feed my neighbors, not a habit I can make a part of my routine.
And let’s face it, they are my neighbors. They live on the same streets I do, walk on the same sidewalks, smell the same food odors wafting from every pizza shop and cafe, see the same people with the same routines, lugging their briefcases and Wall Street Journals into the nearest coffee shop to buy their four dollar coffee. Arguably, I do too. I don’t begrudge myself a seasonal latte, especially when it would just make my day a little sweeter, a little warmer.
So what to do? When my fifteen minute walks to and from campus are consumed with thoughts of my homeless neighbors, the minute I see their boards, their bare hands in need of gloves, their stomachs gurgling nothing but acid and air. Do I just help one person, but give them what I can every time I see them? Do I give once a day, to any random person, not necessarily a specific individual? Do I take them socks and gloves because it’s getting too cold for bare hands and barely guarded toes?
How do I make peace with them on the streets and me warm in my bed? I understand my parents work unreasonably hard to keep a roof over my head, as I will for my children. But where are their families? What is worse: not having a family to help support you, or having a family who doesn’t want to support you?
Perhaps it is too touchy-feely of me to say that we are all family. But we are all human, all living breathing beings, and when did it become the state of humanity not to care? Or does all of New York think the same thoughts I do? I know they do. I know they want to help, I mean, no one is so heartless to not understand hunger, to possess no morsel of empathy large enough not to care. I don’t want to become an unfeeling mass of flesh, whose heart doesn’t beat a little differently at seeing other human beings in a state of need. It must be what others do, block up their hearts and section of their minds to guard against the pressing weight of sympathy.
Part of me questions whether or not it is guilt or sympathy that I feel. But then I ask what would my guilt be resulting from and I come up empty. If I ask what feelings I could be sympathizing with, I find myself staring at so many emotions, I know not what to name first. In the end, I know I will never be accustomed to seeing people, my neighbors, so hungry and cold. I have gotten “used to” seeing them, but I am not sure I will ever be “used to” the slight pressure weighing on my heart.
But, in light of writing all of this, I have decided something that may or may not work, and yet, I am going to try anyways. Do nothing but what you want to. And to an extent, this has been a philosophy of mine for quite sometime, but I had forgotten it as of late. So in this manner, I will do exactly what I want, and feel great about it. If I want to give my scarf to someone, I will. No one but my own self compels me to feel, and thus act, one way or another. So for as long as it relieves my heart to do so, I will give to my neighbors what I can, and nothing less.