Pieces of New York

At Times Square:

A homeless man walked along the great glass windows of a restaurant, tapping, tapping away with a cane he did not need to guide him. “I’m hungry and I just want some food,” he cried. “I’m hungry and I just want some food.” My friend and I walked past him, then stopped a few feet past, looked at each other, almost shyly, and asked, “should we?” Of course we should. We doubled back and caught the attention of the man. “Um…” we said, “if you wait here a bit, we can get you a sandwich at that Starbucks.” We pointed across the street to a Starbucks.

He begins rummaging in his pockets. “I don’t want you to do this for nothing,” he says, taking out two Starbucks gift cards. I was slightly surprised. “I’ll give you these,” he says over our already shaking heads, “and you give me some money so I can buy it myself.”

“No. We can’t do that.” We say uncertainly, “If you’d like, we can buy you a sandwich. Or you can come and choose, if you want…”

“I want to give these to you. Just give me a little money, and I can buy the food I want.”

We started getting firm. “If you really want food, we can buy you a sandwich. But that’s all.”

“You don’t understand, ladies.” he said in a pleading tone, holding out those cards. “You don’t understand! I don’t want a sandwich…”

My friend and I continued shaking our heads, trying to walk away without seeming rude, having realized what the man was actually asking for.

“You don’t understand,’ he said again, pained, pleading, “please.”

We turned, walking away and trying to ignore his pleading, stretched out hands.

“You don’t understand!” I heard behind us, and I tried so hard to shrink into myself.

Indeed, we did not understand. How could we? with our lives so comfortable, so secure, that there was never any real reason for escape. I could not understand the appeal of drugs. I could not understand the torments of withdrawal. I could not understand a life made up of flashes of ecstasy, or perhaps blissful forgetfulness, and the long stretches in between of misery and hunger and loneliness and depression in between. I could not understand the tortures which drive a man to ask for more of this when he was already starving. That painful, pleading, “you do not understand, ladies!” And his eyes, his desperate, pleading eyes. It hurts, because, oh, how little we understood. We turned our backs and left, fleeing something we could not comprehend. I, at least, was also fleeing those pleading eyes. I imagined their accusation. That hurt too. Here was a man, broken, desperate, in need of so much more. And we simply walked away. We gave him nothing. We simply didn’t understand.