On my way home tonight, I passed a homeless man just as he spilled a boiling hot bowl of soup across his knees, as he sat on a cargo stoop to eat it. As he was prying the lid off, the whole cup lost balance on his knee and not only spilled onto the concrete but clearly burned him, judging from his reaction. Who knows how long since he had eaten, whether or not he had been turned away from a shelter tonight or not.
In any case, I haven’t told you the worst part. New York is very busy this time of year, especially in the area where I saw him, and a steady stream of people were walking by. Not only did no one offer him any help, but the woman who was walking in front of me openly had a laugh at his expense. He saw her laughing and hurled the empty cup at her, along with a few choice words, which scared me a little. After that she scowled back at him for a half block, dusting at the hem of her expensive coat.
But at the end of the block was a pizza place. I ducked inside and got in line, picked up a few slices and a drink and went back to see if I could find him. When I got back to the pile of noodles on the pavement, I didn’t see him at first, but then spotted him walking away, a block down. It’s very cold in New York tonight, and I know pizza isn’t as warming as soup, but it was the first food I saw and I didn’t want the gesture to be for naught. I had envisioned him being so surprised and happy when I brought it to him. So, like an insane woman, I followed him. It took a few blocks because the throngs of tourists are slow and not very savvy with the traffic lights, but eventually I caught up to him. I may have been aided by the fact that he walked as though his feet were hurting in his shoes.
“Hey!” I yelled. “You spill your soup?”
He turned to look at me. “Do I know you?”
“No but… “
“Hey!!” I yelled more emphatically. “I saw what happened to your soup and I got you some pizza. It was you, right? He had a jacket like you…” I realized I hadn’t even looked at his face.
He stopped and sized me up. “Oh now you want to help me, huh? Now that I got money you want to help.”
“No! What? I got this for you right after I saw it-“
“Why you wanna help me now but you didn’t do anything when you saw it?”
I stopped in my tracks. He turned and kept walking. Why hadn’t I done anything when I saw it? Why didn’t I say something to that lady who laughed at him? I felt really angry at her for laughing, wondering to myself what is wrong with a person who can laugh at something like that. I thought angry words at her, and I felt so bad for him, but I didn’t even allow an expression to cross my face. I had tried to make it seem like I hadn’t seen anything.
Now my actions were too little, too late. He was homeless, hungry, burned, probably freezing, and humiliated. I can only assume from what he said to me that someone with more courage or compassion must have stopped and given him money while I was in the pizza place.
“Ok, well I’m going to leave it here!” I called, setting it on top of a mailbox. “If you want it. It’s right here.” One of the passersby was shaking his head, chuckling. The homeless guy turned slightly momentarily, but kept walking.
As I went back on my way, feeling awful, I hoped he would come back and take it, but I think I wanted him to take it so that I would feel better. The pizza was probably already cold. Maybe he was on his way to get another soup. Maybe someone else would happen upon the pizza wrapped on the top of the mailbox and take a chance. More likely it would end up in the garbage or blown into the street. And that man would go hungry.
Since my husband died, I have been trying to keep up his acts of kindness and compassion, the way he did. But I’m rotten at this. He was so natural at it and I’m still learning even now. I guess my point is that getting it right would be more like that expression, if you see something, say something. I don’t mean about only suspicious packages, but anything that’s not right. It’s hard to find people who hold themselves accountable for anything, especially in a city where everyone disappears in the crowds, but that’s the only way we’re going to heal the world: It takes a critical mass of people who are paying attention and performing the spontaneous right action at the right moment. I had a good intention tonight but I missed the opportunity to get it right.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hate crimes being on the rise lately, about the things my friends have told me have happened to them. It makes me a little nutty; I’m sure my Facebook friends are ready to kill me, I’m posting so much about it. So it’s hard to accept that I blew it tonight, after all my pontificating about standing up for people and doing the right thing. I guess I decided to post about it tonight to admit my mistake and to describe how I can do better next time. And better luck to all of you out there when your opportunity knocks to help someone in need.