Tag Archive | "homeless"

A Chance (?) Encounter

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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. 

For Shame!

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Cynthia Magnus Holding Destroyed Clothing

In one of the most bitter winters New York City has seen in years, Wal-Mart and H&M, two of our nation’s largest retailers, have chosen to leave our homeless and impoverished out in the cold.  Cynthia Magnus, who stumbled upon no less than twenty bags of discarded clothing outside H&M’s Manhattan store on 35th Street this past December, uncovered the undeniable evidence.   Several doors down, the graduate student came upon another trove of throw away’s, these still wearing Wal-Mart’s tags.


In and of itself, the discovery was appalling.  But what made it more disgusting was the cruelty with which these once perfectly good items were found.  Purposely, fingers had been snipped off gloves, fiberfill coats and jackets slashed and leaking stuffing, and children’s shoes cut so as to be unusable.  The retailers had purposely destroyed items that did not sell fast enough for them, ensuring that no one would benefit from their cast-offs.


When I lived in New York, to get to my office, I ran an obstacle course every frigid morning through Grand Central Station.  I had to step over and around far too many warm bodies: homeless people who’d slept in the alcoves, seeking shelter in order to literally survive another night.  Out on the streets, scores more homeless people huddled pitifully in doorways, numb to the insensitivities of the world while others braved the open streets, begging for small hand-outs.  In the Big Apple, the homeless are as prevalent and as obvious as hot dog vendors, taxi horns, and steaming subway grates.   For two leading retailers making hand over fist in my city not to know about its homeless, and to feign ignorance of the city’s many shelters, churches, and Salvation Army stations, is a crock of you know what.


In response to Ms. Magnus’ discovery and the resultant story in the New York Times, Melissa Hill, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart, seemed surprised.  PR being what it is, of course she did, adding that her corporation usually donates all of its unworn merchandise to charity.   No one bothered to ask her to cough up some proof, as records can always be doctored, and Corporate America is extremely talented in doctoring them.   Initially mute, it took H&M several days after the story broke to form their own response, but it was more honest.  The retailer admitted to a common practice of destroying clothing in its Manhattan store.  This was followed by a promise, like a chastised child, never to do it again in that or any other location.


Times being what they are, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that even the mega retailers like Wal-Mart and H&M are feeling a bit pinched.  Imagine how much more business they may have generated with positive PR, showing them donating the perfectly good clothing to poor men, women, and children!   Times being what they are, with consumers extremely discerning with where they spend their hard-earned bucks, this particular consumer will stop giving hers to H&M and Wal-Mart.  May they’ll feel a bit more pinched for the lack of my own hard-earned bucks.


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