I am just back from the States, after spending some time in Manhattan. Our children have moved and we will now visit them there. Manhattan is a big change from Puerto Rico, where we spent fourteen years, off and on.
The idea of spending time in New York is thrilling: so much to do, so much to see. It is one thing to spend three days in New York and fill them with theater and museums. Living there is different. It is a move, basically. It is taking me time to adjust, to act, to mobilize, to start anew. A poor night and my day is shot. Lethargy sets in, and not much is achieved.
Life is good, and a bit unreal. We have a room with a view; we stay minutes from our children; everything needed is within a short walk. So yes, we’ve seen a ballet, movies, been to museums. I already have a to-do list when we return. What to keep our eyes out for…
The surprise came from the feeling I get from seeing homeless around where I live. They help me feel ‘home’ somehow. They ground me in reality. They remind me that they will be rich in heaven, and I will be poor. I will beg for their attention then.
I am grateful for their presence. They reveal the glitter of the big city for what it is. A few folks live at the top, while the rest struggles to make ends meet. And there are those who no longer have any ends to meet.
One Saturday morning we joined some thirty or forty other people at the rectory of our parish to hand out a bag with a few goodies to people on the street (a sandwich, a ticket for a McDonald’s meal, a t-shirt, a list of shelters, soup kitchens and showers). We went in small groups to Grand Central Station, Penn Station, the Port Authority, or stay in the neighborhood. Paul and I chose the fourth option. With three or four bright green bags to hand out, we set off to meet our street brothers and sisters.
Whereas I had come across several homeless folks in the previous days, that night it had rained and it had been cold, so we walked through empty streets. The people we were looking for had disappeared having found shelter somewhere. It took a bit of walking to meet those we were looking for.
I remember a young man, Tom, with so many pieces of luggage around him; or this tall black man, born in Kenya from a US father and a Kenyan mother. I joked with him that he had points in common with President Obama, which made him and his friend laugh. (Unfortunately, I have now forgotten his name.) I met Kenny on that day, next to a grocery store. A couple of days later, I saw him at another place, and he was surprised I remembered his name.
In each encounter, the point was not only to hand out the bag, but also to connect. Kenny was the one who needed most to talk, which is why I found easy to remember his name. He too was lugging around a heavy suitcase and a couple of bags. He had spent the night in a hospital because of a bad back following a work accident…
Before we started on our journey, still at the church, one group leader mentioned in passing how easy it is to become homeless in New York when one loses one’s job…
At the end of the morning, with still one green bag to give someone, on the door steps of the church, I came across a young black man, with dark sun glasses. He too had a black suitcase with two smaller bags stacked against the lifted handle. He looked ready to go on a business trip, but was hanging around other homeless. So I assumed that he was one himself. What took me to ask him if he lived on the streets? He found my question very rude, insulting, and stupid. Would anyone consider living on the streets and be run over by cars, he asked. Would I ask this very same question to a family member, to Jesus?
I was lost for words, thinking that indeed I would ask a loved one if he or she was living on the streets. Undoubtedly, Jesus was living on the streets… Which better question should I have asked him, I inquired. Angrily, he went on… The idea of having insulted him brought tears to my eyes and I found myself lost for words. After he rejected the food I was offering him, I walked away with a heavy heart.
This young man stayed with me most of that day. Our encounter churned in my mind and heart. He was angry, he was hurting. An old white woman, with a roof on her head and food in her fridge, was doing her thing, − and insulting him in the process.
I am ashamed somehow to admit that the presence of homeless in Manhattan makes this place beautiful to me. They, who have nothing, give me so much, just by walking the streets, sitting on bench, or begging for change with a piece of paper where it’s written that they feel so ashamed to have to do this.
How I wish I could be a fairy-godmother and change their grim reality into something warm and safe! I hope to find a way to make their life a tiny bit better. How can I receive so much from them and only give some change in return?
Photo: Midtown Manhattan from Weehawken, NJ, wikipedia