the rules of polite society
I did something you’re not supposed to.
Society tells us not to acknowledge those in our midst that sit on the curb, hand outstretched, with their miserable eyes downcast. “If you pay attention to one, others will come after you.” It will single you out as soft, an easy mark. Don’t make yourself vulnerable, you don’t want to get into some situation you can’t control. I passed a lot of people society has warned me about on my trip. It started early, a person younger than me was sitting on the floor as I was leaving the train station. I kept my eyes forward, keenly aware of my Tommy Hilfiger handbag, and Coach luggage. I didn’t like myself, but what could I do? I didn’t have enough resources to meaningfully change his life. There were others, usually men, sitting in the filth, some making the effort to speak to every passerby, most were simply mute, watching thousands of people ignore them as they continued on their way. A few weeks ago, I saw an Upworthy video of homeless people reading mean tweets about themselves, a spinoff of the Celebrities Read Mean Tweets thing. I don’t know who thought that was a good idea, but I clicked on it anyway. The things they read were hateful at worst and ignorant at best, but what really struck me was the little line of text near the bottom. It said how long they’d been homeless. A couple started it off, they sat outside, huddled in blankets with their dog. Ten years. Another man had been homeless for forty-seven years. How? How does society systematically fail someone for nearly half a century? I know he’s not the only one. What I don’t understand is how we allow it to happen. Homeless for forty-seven years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. My life was no picnic when I was growing up, and the day I became a homeowner was one of the best in my life. Suddenly, I had a safe place that was mine. These people are denied that every day of their lives. It’s unbearably cruel.
On my last full day in New York, we were on our way to my favorite restaurant/patisserie for a late breakfast. Waiting to cross the street, we were in a throng of mostly business people, everyone looking very busy and expensive with their suits and heels, sunlight bouncing off their smart phones and designer watches. No one, including me, willing to acknowledge the hunched frame against the street sign, knees drawn up to his chest as he held a ratty cardboard sign. I don’t know what the sign said. But I remember what he was saying. “Please, I haven’t eaten anything today. I haven’t had any food today.” I crossed the street, thankful the wind was blowing, because my face felt like it was burning. I blamed allergies for the sniffle I developed. I wanted to burst into tears. It was so wrong. We got to the restaurant and they told us we just missed breakfast, but they’d be seating for lunch soon. Husband wanted to pop into the patisserie for one of their macarons. We ordered two, and I scanned the pastry case. I added a ham and Swiss sandwich to our order. Husband turned around, exasperated. “Why?” He insisted. “We’re going to have lunch in a few minutes.” “Yeah, I know, I’m not eating it, just calm down,” I said. I couldn’t say what I was doing without risking tears, and I had no interest in that. So I acted defensive and told him he was judgy, and he could just deal with not knowing every detail of every motive I have. He sniped at me, I sniped at him, and stared at the stained glass ceiling trying to keep it together. A few moments later he said, “oh. I think I know what you’re doing.” I replied, “yes, you probably do, if you bothered to think about it.” We exited the patisserie and I walked back up the street as slowly as I could, nibbling my macaron. It was too sweet and tasted like innocence and joy, and didn’t sit well at all. I didn’t know how to do this. If I couldn’t think about it without crying, how was I going to do it? How irritatingly pompous, here’s a sandwich and some tears for you. I irritated myself. At that moment, Husband asked, “So do you have a game plan?” I shook my head. I had nothing but a half-eaten macaron, a sandwich, and a tenuous grasp on my emotional state. We got to the intersection and Husband stopped, looking around, irritated. “What are you doing?” I asked. “He’s gone,” he sounded half indignant, half disappointed. I stared at him. “No he didn’t,” I insisted. “He’s right there,” and I gestured to the next intersection. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t see that guy.” “Seriously?” I spluttered, how could you miss him, I wondered. “There was someone else right here.” Well crap, I thought. I missed that person completely. I crossed the crosswalk and stopped, not knowing how to proceed. I took a few awkward steps and paused. Hating to stand over him, but not knowing if my crouching down on his level would even be welcome, or just come off condescending. I extended my arm, holding out the sandwich. He stared at it, as though he was unsure it was meant for him. Tentatively, he reached up and took it. “Thank you. God bless you,” he murmured. I nodded stiffly and turned around. Husband and I crossed the street and walked in silence, then he put his arm around me. “I don’t know why you ever thought I would judge you,” he said.
I did that thing you’re not supposed to. And it wasn’t nearly enough.