At a certain point of living in New York, you stop seeing homeless people. Outside of the very strange, (I’ll never forget the sight of an old man, furiously masturbating on the steps of the church/thrift store on 21st and Park), anyone who has lived in the city for more than a vacation tunes out the signs, the ragged clothes, the hopeless eyes. If you imagined the story behind every single person begging for change on the sidewalk, you’d lose your mind. It’s a coping mechanism. If I am walking home and I have a few coins easily accessible, I might give them to someone. But the majority of the time, I just walk by. I grieve and donate when a tornado rips through the aptly named Tornado Alley, but homeless people just fly by. Even the name ‘homeless people’ is blurring and impersonal. It sounds like a statistic from a census: “the number of homeless people grew this decade to an astounding…”
She is young, maybe 25. Her hair is muted, the remnants of a long-ago dye job leaving a dark red color. It’s strange to see someone so young, so seemingly alive sitting on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign. Normally homeless people are old, with heavy beards and drawn-out wrinkles creasing their face.
Her eyes strike me. Again, a long time ago she had put on some heavy eyeshadow, or mascara, or something guys don’t understand. Regardless, it was a bright pink that had bled down to her cheeks. The pink was darkened because she had been crying. Or rather, she was just finishing up. She sniffles and looks towards Union Square longingly, despite the scaffolding and construction that should block her view. What lies over there? A boyfriend who has abandoned her, a young girl from the country who moved to the city in the dazzle of young love? A job opportunity, one she was counting on and thought she had wrapped up, that fell through and she couldn’t pay her rent that morning? She had already sold her furniture, her meager possessions. And somehow, despite that she seemed ‘newly’ homeless (Ugh. Freshly homeless? Recently homeless?), she already knew that she gave off that vibe of homelessness. A smell of desperation, fear, despair.
Her sign was elegant. If there was a MOMA exhibit for panhandling signs, this one would be the centerpiece, behind the mystical red velvet rope. She had written it in unbroken cursive, tinged with some light color. It read Mama said there’d be days like this, mama said there’d be days like this. In a city filled with any help appreciated god bless or need 75 dollars to get bus ticket home, or even the quickly-getting-old I’ll be honest, I want a beer, it was an almost devastatingly penetrating sign. Someone so poetic, so creative shouldn’t be begging for money on Park Avenue South. She should be taking questions on her new fashion line, or reading excerpts of her first novel in a crowded Barnes and Noble.
She sniffled and hunched forward, elbows resting on her knees. The one thing she had in common with every other panhandler I’d had seen was the ubiquitous white coffee cup at her feet. If anyone deserved my money, the eighty-odd cents in my pocket, it was this girl. She wasn’t yet crushed with the expectation of loss that emanated from the vast majority of the ignored New York sidewalk inhabitants.
It was only when I was half a block away, and crossing the street, that I realized I hadn’t given her any of the spare change jangling in my back pocket.