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    Wednesday, March 08, 2006
    The Things I Can't Ask
    When you live in New York for almost four years you become accustomed to people asking you for change. It happens on the subways, in front of stores, on random street corners. There’s one guy on the R line who recites poetry, there’s a singing trio on the L, the list goes on and on. Mainly you tune them out. Or quickly appraise that your change isn’t actually going to help certain people do anything other than buy their next jug of cheap vodka. Rarely these days does anyone get past the steely New York exterior that is created by my look at the ground and listen to my iPod mentality.

    But as with most stories, there is always the exception. She stands by my subway stop in Brooklyn almost daily. To the point that when she’s not there, when she disappears for days at a time, I find myself worrying about her. She’s five feet tall tops, though her rounded shoulders and hung head make her seem much smaller. Even wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing she is clearly very thin. And her age, though most likely brought on by what looks like years on the streets, has got to be somewhere closer to my grandparents than my parents.

    “ Can you spare some change, please?” The voice is small, sweet, and full of humiliation. Everything about her suggests that she is genuinely humiliated by her situation. She never looks passerby in the eyes. She stares directly at the ground, shoulders drooping. Her skin is ashen, instead of a consistent chocolate color it is almost as if her skin is trying to match the gray color of her hair.

    I’ve taken to gathering the change from my wallet and transferring it to my pocket just before my subway stop. If it happens to be one of the days she is not there, I transfer it right back, waiting for the chance to see her again. I don’t know how, or why, I’ve taken such an interest in this woman, but I have. There are a thousand things I want to talk to her about. I want to know her name, for one. I want to know how she became homeless, where her family is, where she stays at night. I want to talk to her when I see her, instead of just handing her my change and smiling at her as she tells me “God Bless you, have a wonderful everyday”. I want to get to know this woman, and I can’t figure out how.

    It’s so tricky, it would be a tough line to walk. Not wanting to come off as thinking I am higher than she is, but not wanting to make it seem as if I think we are kindreds in some way, as her situation is clearly unimaginable to me. One of these days I am going to gather enough courage to introduce myself, to at least have something to call her other than the Sweet Homeless Lady. But for now – I’ll just keep my change ready, and hope that my measly $1.50 can help her get some food.

    Labels: ,

    posted by FINY @ Wednesday, March 08, 2006  
    • At 3/08/2006, Blogger Jere said…

      It's tough, because you want to help everyone, but you can't. If you give change to someone, how do you explain to the person on the next block that you've already done your good deed for the day, but that if you'd happened to come from the other direction, you'd have seen the second person first, and they would have gotten your change?

      There's a one-legged guy who sits on the corner where my laundromat is. Every time I do laundry, I have to go by him six times (do the math). He sees me with the basket, and knows I must have a pocket full of laundry quarters. He usually just says, "Hey boss," but sometimes he gets up the courage to ask for change. I just say "sorry," keep walking, and say hi to him again the next time. The point is, yeah, if you've got change handy, you might as well give it to the person. If not, say "sorry" and keep on going. But know that the fact that you give these people a second thought makes you a good person. It's especially tough when you work for a non-profit, like I do, and you do, and you work all day helping people, and then you walk past a homeless person without giving them change, and it makes you want to explain your situation to them.

      I've lost even myself now. Hope somebody got something out of that.

    • At 3/09/2006, Blogger BS Memorial said…

      There's this one woman- she usually hangs out at Grand Central, but maybe she's been elsewhere. Anyway, she's in a wheelchair, and from what I could gather while avoiding any semblance of staring, she has fairly crippled hands.

      She also has one of the three or four greatest singing voices I've ever heard anywhere- Aretha, Etta, Otis- she's up there with all of them. It's absolutely ASTOUNDING. I always give to her.

      Other than that, I just keep it 'fair' by not giving to anyone. I'm not really sure where my money'd go, and I don't necessarily consider that "help," either necessarily.

      There is a guy that is schizophrenic with tourette's that works in our building and who spends his morning SCREAMING obscenities/ TV show themes. I always give to him- but I give like, $5 for dinner or something. His name's Jeff.

      It's a pretty rough moral quandry. I can't really blame anyone for how they approach it.

    • At 3/09/2006, Blogger Esther said…

      It's rare that I give to someone on the street. Some try to get you to donate to the "United Negro Pizza Fund", others to get them a subway ride or dinner. I tend to feel bad coming out of the bank when there's a particular woman who stands there, holding the door for people. She never asks when you go inside. When you are coming out she doesn't really ask, but just sort of looks at you, with pleading eyes. it's hard to say that you don't have anything to give when you've just gone to the atm.

    • At 3/10/2006, Blogger lizy said…

      you are such a sweet soul. I hope you find out her name. I would want to know too.

    • At 3/12/2006, Blogger Jere said…

      There was a guy, also by Grand Central, who sat there holding a sign that said:

      "Parents killed by ninjas

      Need money for karate lessons

      Revenge is sweet"

    • At 3/12/2006, Blogger Meegan said…

      This is such a beautiful and powerful piece of writing, Finy. I also hope you speak to her.

    • At 3/19/2006, Blogger redsock said…

      You could offer to buy her breakfast at a nearby coffee shop.

      Or maybe work up to that by buying her a bagel or something?

      (Jere, that haiku is fantastic!)

    • At 3/21/2006, Blogger snob in the city said…

      BS: I know that woman at Grand Central and you are right...her voice is remarkable.

      Sox Gal: It is difficult in this city to not acknowledge all of those asking for money. We are quick to become decensitized. By taking an actine interest in this young girls, perhaps this is where you could make a difference.

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    Name: FINY
    Home: New York, New York, United States
    About Me: Just a New England girl trying to make it in NYC. Email me at: soxfaninnyc [at] gmail [dot] com
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