Looking into the Shadows ...
About a block and a half from the expensive Nomad Hotel on Broadway sat a man on the frigid concrete, surrounded by plastic materials and bags that created a wall of sorts who offered up insights and thoughts to everyone and to no one in particular. The temperature in New York when I first noticed him was an icy 25 degrees and everyone on the street bustled as fast as they could to get somewhere out of the cold. For the ten days I stayed in that hotel, this man never budged. Day time, night time, there he was. Not ranting and railing and crying out in desperation, but holding his own and calmly speaking his piece to the masses who didn’t listen.
He broke my heart in a way. I wanted to witness him everyday during my stay. It seemed like the least I could do. Ellen Bass’ poem - “If You Only Knew” - about recognizing the mortality of our fellow beings, comes to mind:
“What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?”
This man stayed on my mind the whole time I was in New York as I tried to figure out his story. Why was this sane sounding, clean black gentleman spending his days and nights on Broadway in lower Manhattan? What difficulties had brought him to this place? Where were the people he loved, the place he once called home? I attempted to engage him one afternoon and offered him some cash and he responded with some surprise. In the end he took my five dollars and thanked me politely. I had the distinct feeling that the money I offered was not going to booze or drugs, but perhaps into a private kitty he may have to help him pass his days on this very street. He was an unusual man, perhaps in his fifties and looking relatively healthy, unlike most of the homeless people I walk by in San Francisco whose scabbed faces and bloodshot eyes make my heart hurt. This gentleman on Broadway gave no signs of being on death’s door…
I think I want to find a story in my mind for this man. I want to give him a past populated by people who cared for him and with whom he had community. If I had gone back to visit him one last time before I left New York, I might have asked him some questions about his past, his visions for his life, but sadly I became too caught up in the momentum of departing and never did revisit his little enclave of plastic bags and blankets. It is now a week since I last laid eyes on him, and I can’t get him out of my mind.
There’s an enduring question in my brain now, and that is: what about the white privileged guilt I carry? What about my grinding discomfort with the disparity between my own advantages in society and that of this man I watched every day in NY? How do I understand our shared experiences of this human journey? One thing I believe is that in writing of the experience I come closer and closer to feeling our commonality and mutual understanding. I have to keep looking, allowing for the suffering that bubbles up in my heart at this man’s (and so many others) deep loneliness, and perhaps one of these days I’ll be able to move toward him as though he wasn’t on the other side of some wall or invisible barrier. Perhaps then I’ll be able to greet him just as a fellow traveler like myself who knows suffering AND intermittent joy.