A Chance (?) Encounter

Posted on 27 January 2011

Mr. President, something happened to me the other day that I feel compelled to share with you.

On the first bitter cold Manhattan morning, I settled into my usual table at my usual coffee shop, with my usual steaming coffee, opening the first of two Irish newspapers that I usually buy each Wednesday.  They are a weekly treat, the Irish papers, and I look forward to a leisurely, undisturbed read. Enveloped by the fragrance of wafting coffee and fresh newsprint, I was rewarded with a rare double-page spread of verse, the results of a contest for fledging poets.  The shop was cozy, the verse touching and thought-provoking, the coffee melting like a warm caramel over my tongue.  A more than pleasant way to start the workday.

A woman bustled in and began to settle herself beside me.  In typical New York custom, I did not acknowledge her presence or even toss a glance her way.  But something in the rustling of too many packages made me look up.

One sleeve of her cheap, slightly dingy coat was dangling by a thread — as, I realized a moment later, was she.  Muttering lucidly, the way that you might speak aloud to yourself, the woman lamented the loss of the two dollars that had been in her pocket not five minutes earlier; the two dollars in coins that “that nice lady on the subway” had given her that very morning.

Those two dollars graced her pocket the way that my millions grace my bank account: they were never there to begin with.  She was one of that brand of homeless souls that break your heart if you let them.  She still very much resembled a human being in appearance and odor, and was trying, with the last shred of her dignity, to beg without begging.

I wished that she would go away, or that I could slip into the stanza that I had read six times and was not getting, as she was sapping my attention.  An employee of the coffee shop inquired (politely, to his credit), if he could help the woman.  She explained that as soon as she located her two dollars, she was going to buy herself some breakfast.  He nodded and went away, and we all knew he’d be back in a minute, less than polite.  The other patrons were glaring at her stone-eyed, those that had bothered to look up, that is.  All this woman wanted was a hot beverage and a Danish.  All she wanted was a place to sit other than a doorway, couched like an animal and cornered by the wind.  Two dollars would have bought her all that.

Surreptiously, I slipped two singles out of my wallet and asked meekly, “Miss, is this your money?”

“Why, yes!” she lit up.  “Did you find it on the floor?”

“You must have dropped it,” I lied, for we both knew that she had mentioned coins, not bills.

“Thank you,” she responded, and I would have left it at that.  But she added warmly, “You’re an angel.”

I mumbled something like, “No, I’m not” or “That’s all right.”  But with quiet force, she insisted, “Oh no, you’re an angel.”  Mr. President, those who know and love me best can attest that I am nobody’s angel.  But maybe, in that moment, I was.  I was one poor woman’s angel of mercy.

As she made her way to the counter, I prepared to make a hasty retreat.  Quickly, reluctantly, I folded my paper and began to shrug on my layers of clothing.  But not quickly enough.  As I was reapplying my lipstick, she slid back in beside me and the heat rose up in my face.  I was embarrassed — for her, for me, but mostly for me.

“Oh,” she observed, “that’s a pretty shade of lipstick.  I only wear make-up when I go to my dance class.  It’s free, you know, at the Y.”

For the first time, I looked her full in the face.  There was a gap where her two front teeth had been, and her unwashed hair had been coiffed as stylishly as possible under the circumstances.  “You … go to dance class?” I choked.

“Yes,” she said kindly.  And now she was the angel, delicate with my embarrassment.  “It helps me to keep in touch, if you know what I mean.”

I knew, and did not know, what she meant.  All my life, I have slept in warm, clean beds, eaten all the food I could possibly want, and have blithely tossed away the scraps.  I finished college.  Of the 400 students in my graduating class, I was one of 24 lucky enough to land a job, and I’ve been working ever since.   So I could not bring myself to nod, “Yes, I know what you mean.”  I only gulped, looked her again in the eye and whispered, “Good luck.”

“God bless you,” she replied and repeated, as I hadn’t heard her the first time, “God bless you.”

God blesses me yes, but who blesses her?  Like Saul struck down in the moment of his conversion, I walked in a stupor to my nice, warm corner office.  Living in New York City all my life, I gave whatever I could, regularly, to the homeless begging on the streets and on the subway steps.  I had the warm beds, the food, and the job, so it wasn’t a big deal to me.  But never once did I stop to speak with any homeless person, until that morning.

I wondered how many people never really look at the homeless.  And then I wondered that if they did look, what was it that they saw.  A pest and pestilence, a living Petri dish teeming with AIDS?  Do we avert our eyes, terrified that we might spy the semblance of a human being, fearful that the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I” might jump into our heads and hit a little too close to home?

For me, it was another phrase that crept into my brain.  Not very long ago (after you had been elected, but while President Reagan was still in the White House), a woman that I know thoughtlessly repeated a platitude.  This was in response to my telling her about the crowd of barely-warm homeless bodies festooning Grand Central Station, the ones that I must step carefully over each morning on my way to work.  This woman is a sweet, naive soul who rarely ventures out of her borough and who votes the way her husband votes, and only that way, because “he knows about these things.”  Her reply to my tale of the homeless was, “But the President says there are no homeless in America.”

Mr. President, in my corner of the country, things are not getting kinder or gentler, as you’d promised they would when you were on the campaign trail.  It’s hard to look abject poverty in the eye when it sleeps on the streets where you live and work.  It must be harder still to acknowledge it as a reality when it appears as nothing more than statistics on a government report.  In a time when China blew away it’s youth and Germany jumped the Berlin Wall, people huddled hungry in our big city alleys or beside Midwestern streams are not even worthy of back-page news.  Three million Americans and counting have become invisible.  Yet, they exist.  They are, to paraphrase Jesus Christ, “always with us.”

They have lice and germs and foul odors.  They have human hearts and hands and eyes.  Although much of their sight must be turned inward, they see us, Mr. President, they see us.

Isn’t it time that we saw them?


Epilogue:  This article was originally published, in 1989, in Pantera magazine.  In the years since, the homeless population across the United States has exploded as the government has grown blinder still.  Our homeless population now includes many veterans who have sacrificed so much through too many wars, and well educated, once gainfully employed professionals hit hard by a rotten economy.  There is no longer a pat “profile” for homeless people, if ever there was.  Things are still not any kinder or gentler than they were in ’89.  In fact, they’re a whole lot worse.  May God bless us, indeed. 

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4 Responses to “A Chance (?) Encounter”

  1. Abby says:

    It seems that we always see a number of news reports and articles about homelessness during the holiday season. Yet, for the rest of the year, it is a problem invisible to most people. Homelessness, however, is a persistent problem for those unfortunate enough to be living it. This was a timely article when you first wrote it in 1989 and regrettably is still so today. Thanks, Kathleen, for shedding light on this growing problem.

  2. Jack S. Fogbound says:

    could this be a result of global warming?

  3. Ezikial says:

    I think Jack has hit it on the nose, these are the warning signs of the second coming

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