Outside, OR, Homeless on 5th Ave

There’s inside, and there’s outside. Inside of power. Outside in the cold.

Thursday afternoon, it was cold. Spring equinox, supposedly, but far from springlike in Manhattan. People were huddling against the wind, the lucky ones warm from still wearing heavy coats often discarded by this point in March. I had unfortunately believed the weather report, and was wearing only a light spring coat, no wool except for my hat, no fleece, the scarf around my neck and a pull-on hat the only real comfort as I walked from the subway to meet a friend at MoMA.

I got out of the subway at the bottom end of Central Park, on 5th avenue. The upscale part of NYC. I walked past high-end retailers, diamonds in the window in Bergdorff-Goodman’s (I think I’m remembering that correctly), status for sale at Louis Vuitton, and so to the upmarket church section: Presbyterian, Episcopal, Roman Catholic in a row, just a few blocks separating them. I planned, as I walked, a funny blog post about God turning off the heat in NYC and me wishing He wouldn’t because I was freezing.

On the sidewalk outside the Presbyterian church, I saw a homeless woman, and the joke stopped being funny.

The city is full of homeless people, and full of people walking past them. But this was different. In the winter, a lot of homeless people look cold, bundled in as many layers as they can get, stoically enduring. This woman wasn’t bundled. I do not know what she was wearing, because she was huddled in a canvas sheet, but it can’t have been much at all, because the whole of her, sheet and all, was slender. She was shaking violently. Not the shaking one sees sometimes in alcoholics or other addicts, but from the cold. How do I know? I’m no doctor. But I am human, and it was stunningly obvious.

Her eyes were clear, and conscious of all that was happening to her. Homeless people are sometimes shut down inside, by their eyes, long suffering having numbed them. She wasn’t numb. She was feeling every second of that horrid cold. She was sitting on a concrete sidewalk.

She was beautiful. About my age. Clear brown skin, expressive eyes, cheekbones that any artist would love to capture on canvas. An angel of God, a daughter of humanity, a sister. Our eyes met. And there was nothing I could think of to do to save her.

Her eyes expressed suffering: but no blame. I don’t know how that was possible.

She had short hair, in a spiky hairstyle. Bits of bare scalp showed in-between the thick curls. Heads lose heat. I pulled off my hat, gave it to her, and said, “Here, take this.” She pulled it on. The interaction was a natural one, in a horribly unnatural situation. Her hands were shaking. I knew I had to be out myself, late, and it would get colder; so I kept my scarf and gloves, though the real human thing to do would have been to hand her everything, coat and all. And then I dropped a dollar in her cup and walked away.

She is, was, Human and Beautiful. I pray she is alright, now. I was less than human. Every single person walking by her was less than human. If there had been a dog or cat there, stranded on that sidewalk shivering, a dozen people would have stopped, someone would have arranged a rescue.

I walked away. I did not know how to rescue her. Could one call an ambulance? Take her somewhere?

I walked the three remaining blocks to MoMA; across from MoMA there is a new building, or perhaps a renovation, under construction. It will be a luxury hotel. Presumably a thousand dollars a night, in that location. Louis Vuitton, 1K hotel rooms, 5th Avenue churches, among them my own, where well-dressed people will worship this Sunday, and Outside, in the cold, are the angels, abandoned.

In justice I will say also: those churches run soup kitchens, are active in helping the poor. Part of the reason I did not interfere is because I guessed she was in that location by choice, and presently would go to one of the soup kitchens for a meal. But dear God, it should be better than this.

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for …
we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.’

From ‘Dover Beach’, by Matthew Arnold.

4 thoughts on “Outside, OR, Homeless on 5th Ave

  1. Say not the struggle naught availeth,
    The labour and the wounds are vain…

    What more is there that one can say? Tears, for the angels and the humans. You gave her the grace of recognition, and it may be that there is no greater gift.

    • You are of course correct, Leigh. But I’d have liked to provide hot soup, shower, clothing, and a safe place to sleep also. I have no feeling that what I did, what any of us do, is actually sufficient. Better by far than nothing, of course, but… I am not discounting the grace exchanged at all, though. Hers to me as well as anything I may have given her.

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