Riding on a subway in NYC reminds me of being inside a giant tin can, sometimes when you step onto the train you never know what suprises might await you inside. Today, it happened to be a man (homeless) who captured my curiosity as he wandered onto the other end of the train. He was about 6 feet tall, in his late fifties and was wearing a wrinkle free black t-shirt, a pair of pressed blue jeans and faded black work boots. The thing that struck me about him was although he looked tired he was very polite and well mannered (gentlemen are a rare breed in this city) and he looked well groomed with perfectly trim hair and a recently shaved face. He made it towards me with his head bowed, in a shaky voice and trembling hands, he clenched an upside down hat full of change as he said, "Ladies and gentlemen; I don't rob, I don't steal. I'm a Vietnam Vet who is just hungry and if you could spare some change or if you have some food to share, I would appreciate your kind donation." As he raised his head I made it a point to look him in the eyes as a gesture of acknowledging his presence in the world and I smiled. He smiled back, lowered his eyes once again and said, "I like your hair." Immediately, something inside me told me that I needed to buy this man lunch. Some might call me a sucker for a beggar but I think it takes a lot of courage for a grown man to humble himself to ask for food and frankly I find it heartbreaking that he even has to beg for it in a world full of so much abundance. The train suddenly came to an abrupt stop, the subway doors opened and he moved with the current of people flowing into the train station. I followed him as he limped to the elevator.
As the man (homeless) pressed the elevator button he saw me out of the corner of his eye, smiled and said "Are you following me? " I humourously replied with a smile, "Why yes I am. Your hungry and I'm taking you to lunch." "Alright, but are you taking me to McDonalds? " "No sir. I have no intentions of killing you or clogging your arteries with greasy food." We both laughed.
Together, Danie the man and I talked as we made our way to Cafe 34, at 34th and 8th avenue. There at the cafe they had a large selection of salads, sandwiches and hot meals for us to choose from. Danie, after much thought ordered a freshly made, plain hamburger with a regular pepsi. He was smiling from ear to ear with excitement like a child at a toy store. I asked him if he wanted fries? Danie responded with a laugh, apparently he was trying to watch his weight and health since he was getting older, the fries would only spoil him and put him to sleep. Humor in spite of homelessness, definately an invaluable resource. While we waited for the food, I called my friend and invited her to join us, she obliged and I placed an order for another salad.
Together, we took our trays of food outside on the patio so we could enjoy the beautiful weather. Danie began telling us about his life story, that his mother was a single parent and she raised him with a firm hand to keep him out of trouble. He said that his mother trained him well for the military, he was drafted at age 17 and was shipped away to Vietnam. I joked with him about how a mother can look at you -regardless of your age- with the "your in trouble glance" and you freeze in your tracks. It is one of those looks that can melt through pure steel. It ranks right up there with a parent calling you by your full name: "Maria Conchita Gonzales Suerto you better xyz or else. " We laughed at a simple truth, a mothers love and discipline is universal.
During Vietnam, Danie was shot in the leg and returned to the United States. His mother had passed away and since he had no siblings, was left alone to recover from his injury. The wounds on his body healed much faster than the wounds in his heart or the nightmares and flashbacks in his head. In order to cope, the doctors gave Danie meth and he was hooked. His benefits began to run out and unable to continue to pay for his healthcare and medication, Danie's military buddy turned him onto the new 'rich persons drug' during the seventies, cocaine. Once cocaine ran it's course, crack became the new drug of choice. Strung out, addicted and financially disabled, unable to comprehend lifes responsibilities; the bills began to pile up and Danie could not make his rent. It was then that he began to painfully sober up through heavy withdrawals and he decided to let go of his possessions and go into a city run drug treatment center. There, Danie cleaned up his addictionbut lost every material possession in exchange for his life. He learned quickly, at the fatal stabbing of a bunk mate that it was safer to sleep in the street than be in a city run shelter. Danie has been homeless ever since, sober and attending AA meetings for twenty years. The money donations Danie receives from kind people on the subway either pay for him to have a hot meal, or give hime an opportunity to rent a room at a small hotel and take a hot shower. There are times when he is lucky with his donations and times when he goes without a bite to eat for an entire week. What makes the difference for him is when strangers extend a hand of kindness and sharing.
As a treat I get Danie some vanilla ice cream for dessert, his eyes are wide with excitement. Danie explains to us that just because he is homeless, does not mean he has to look or smell homeless. He proudly says that he bought his pants for $7.99 and his shirt for $2.00 at a discount retailer down the street. I quietly think to myself about how much we can waste on just buying breakfast. Danie takes a bite of his ice cream, looks up with delight at us and says, "Thank you for being so kind hearted. Most people, when they get educated, forget about those of us that go without." I smile at him, "We are both part of the same human family. The only thing that makes us different is I have a job (which pays me straight commission), a roof over my head and family to fall back on if necessary. The creator loves you no less than he loves me."
Once the ice cream is done, we gather our things and head out the door. We invite Danie to go to church with us next Wednesday and he seems quiet interested, in exchange he thanks us with hugs. Then we go our seperate ways.
Danie serves as a reminder to me that over a million people have already become homeless due to the recent mortgage crisis, an extra ten million families are expected to become homeless and flood the shelters this year as a result; men, women and children are not immune to poverty. The side-stepping subject of homelessness reminds me of a saying we used when I worked in Human Resources management and had to fire an employee, " If you ever get use to firing people, you are in the wrong job." Now when I see a homeless person on the street or sleeping in a subway station I think to myself; If we as a community or as a nation ever get use to mass suffering or homelessness, we have failed one another by losing our compassion and love for humanity. Money cannot be worth more than human dignity and maintaing a decent quality of life.
Each and everyone of us should be asking ourselves how and why our government is failing us by not providing legislation to protect the American Family from corrupt realtors, real estate price gouging and mortgage lending sharks.