I rarely interact with the homeless, unless it’s to offer money or food. When I lived on New York’s Upper West Side, I regularly used to buy an extra bagel for Chicken Man, who lived in my neighborhood from the spring day when the psychologically disturbed were released from Bellevue Hospital until they were re-gathered in the autumn for safe wintering. He was called Chicken Man by locals because he, a tall, sturdy man with stiff reddish-blond hair who always wore suspenders and looked like a demented farmer, would stand on the Broadway mall in the 70s and cackle at unsuspecting pedestrians. Caught off guard, non-local pedestrians would stare, recoil, and hurry past, unsure if he might be dangerous in addition to having a quirky sense of humor. Locals smiled and chuckled as they watched the drama.
Nowadays, I just visit New York and come across fewer homeless in my peregrinations. The other day, I was at the 28th Street and 7th Avenue stop of the Broadway local, where a homeless man was asking fellow travelers for help with the machine that tops up your Metrocard. I watched as people walked past, some arcing around him suspiciously. He seemed genuinely frustrated and distressed and—although he emitted that familiar, acrid odor—was tidily dressed and polite. Not a drug-crazed homeless, but an older man down on his luck. I walked over and suggested that he follow the (straightforward to me, anyway) directions on the screen. Is he illiterate, I wondered?
He told me there were too many steps and that he got confused as he waved his depleted, senior citizen Metrocard.
“I’ll help you,” I offered, deciding that he was truly harmless and deserving of help. A teacher by instinct, I guided him through the process.
After he inserted his card, we proceeded through the various screens, from the initial ‘touch to start’ to ‘purchase complete’. He was hesitant at first, became a bit confused by the plethora of buying and payment options but finally completed the transaction on his own with my verbal guidance.
When it came time to pay, he reached inside his jacket to a zippered pouch that hung across his chest. From it, he pulled out a sandwich-sized ziplock bag, the kind without an actual zipper. Inside was a stack of bills neatly folded and secured with a red rubber band. The biggest bills he had were twenties, and he slipped one from the packet, carefully replacing the stack in the bag and the bag in his zippered pouch, which he tugged so it rested under his jacket against his back, inaccessible to potential robbers. Only then, did he flatten the bill and insert it into the proper slot.
“That’s it, your card is now refilled,” I said, when the ‘payment accepted’ message appeared on the screen. He smiled.
“Can you remember this for the next time?” I asked.
“I hope so,” he replied. “Otherwise, I’ll just have to wait until you show up!” he joked.
And then, we went our separate ways, he, through the turnstile, me, up the steps to meet my friends for lunch. While the experience reminded me how grateful I am for my privileged life, I also thought about what a pro Homeless Man was at his way of life. Although he needed help with modern technology, as many of us do at moments—me, most recently, getting the airport machine to spit out my baggage tag—I thought about the acquired knowledge he must possess to survive in a somewhat respectable manner on the streets of Manhattan. And about the various reasons others didn’t stop to help him. Some, perhaps, were operating on a tight schedule but certainly not all. I was saddened by the thought that fear and/or self-absorption guide social behavior much more in the U.S., as I experience it, than elsewhere on the planet.