I was walking home from work today going West on 45th. I passed some low brick apartments and caught a look at a bold glass tower I’d never seen before. It’s the strange magic of Manhattan that huge buildings can hide here even though they’d dominate another skyline. It was only my third day living in the City. It felt like I found something new here every day. I smiled as I realized the scale of this place. I felt lucky to explore it. That someday, I might even know it.
Past the tower, I remembered I wanted to put up a calendar when I got home. I’ve never been one for planning. But I think new starts are a good place to start new habits. I needed to buy thumbtacks.
At the next block I turned to head towards the hardware store I’d stopped in yesterday. At the turn I saw there was a homeless man laying on the ground at the edge of the curb near where it met the road. I was new to living in the City, but I’d grown up just outside it and had been visiting all my life. You learn quickly to ignore people on the street asking you for money. I sometimes gave a few spare bills if I had it loose in my pockets. The skeptic in me knew that mostly I was funding drug habits and not helping anyone. But as long as I spent $20 on lunch without thinking, I found it hard to justify a few dollars’ skepticism in the face of human suffering. I turned back to look at the man. He had his arms raised out to people as they walked by. He was reaching out to them, begging for help, but no one was listening. I looked for a few seconds, thinking I should keep moving and go. I remembered a conversation I had with my dad when I first started commuting.
“New York is like nowhere else in the world,” I’d said, “Every day it gives you a moral challenge. There’s someone in a wheelchair struggling to make it up a steep ramp. You can choose to give them a push. Or on the Subway some tourist will be confused, and you can choose to give directions. But if you help, you might miss your train. You never know. Doing right can have a cost. Everywhere else morality is abstract. In New York, if you want to be good, you have an opportunity almost every day.”
Obviously I couldn’t remember the exact words, nor can I now. But I remembered the sentiment. I went back to try and help the man.
I couldn’t make out what he was saying at first. He mumbling. Not talking fast, but talking constantly and vaguely. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t get a haircut. He motioned towards his head. Then his legs. He didn’t look injured. I tried to offer help but he wasn’t responding. His eyes were bloodshot. I watched his hands to see if he was going to make a move for anything. But he just kept laying there on the wet concrete only a foot or so from fast moving traffic. I asked if he wanted money, or if he needed help. Or food. If he wanted to go somewhere. He just kept talking. I asked if he was sick and wanted me to call anyone. He said he didn’t want an ambulance. I tried to help him to his feet but he wouldn’t take my hand. I didn’t know what to do.
I looked and a woman was standing next to me. She was older. White and with white hair. She was looking at the man. She said something to him I didn’t hear and then she pulled out a phone. People were walking all around us in pairs and singles all the time. The woman was calm and the man was too and so was I. This was strangely normal. I told her that I didn’t know what to do and she said she was calling the hospital. I kept my eyes on the man. He didn’t look sick, and in my peripheral saw the woman was wearing clean yellow Nike’s. Nondescript. I told the man we were were going to call an ambulance. He got flustered. Started moving his arms around more. But he still didn’t get up.
“Not again,” he said, “I don’t want to go in another ambulance.”
He said again he couldn’t do anything. Didn’t have money for anything. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t cut his hair. I gave him the last two dollars from my wallet and he took it but it didn’t seem like he wanted it. He didn’t want the ambulance. I told her he didn’t want it, but she was on with dispatch. She said he was probably about 50 years old and she looked at me for confirmation. I looked at him. He was black and his face didn’t have any wrinkles. His hair might have been graying but he had a hat on so I couldn’t tell. His hands weren’t shaking and he wasn’t slurring his words. His legs moved every now and again. He wasn’t paralyzed, but he wouldn’t get up. I didn’t know what to do. I shrugged to her. Yeah, maybe forty or fifty. She put the phone to her shoulder.
“So many pathetic people,” she said, to the air or maybe me.
I was shocked that she could be so callous, but still she was doing the right thing. She had stopped walking. She was calling him ambulance. I didn’t know what to do.
A man came by crossing the street and stopped in front of us. He was black and tall and spoke in an African accent. He asked what was going on and the woman and I gestured at the man on the ground. The newcomer shouted at us and him not to help the man. Not to give him anything. He was here all the time. They talked at each other but the man on the ground still didn’t get up. I tried again to help him to his feet. He didn’t take my hand. The other man called across the street where some police were walking. They turned towards us moving calm.
The man on the ground was arguing, but they were coming now. I tried to look at him but couldn’t think. Tried to give him a nod. Some small support. He didn’t meet my eyes. I told the woman I was going and said that I wished him good luck as I turned. I don’t know what happened after that.
I went to the hardware store and bought my thumbtacks. They were $2.75 and the clerk was mad I didn’t have cash to pay. Charging a card would cost him extra. He did it anyway and I took my thumbtacks and went. My apartment was only a block or two away.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that man laying on the ground. There was nothing I could have done. Nothing I could have said or given him. I don’t even think he knew what he wanted, or what he needed. It felt wrong that he should be in such a bad situation, but I couldn’t think what anyone could do to help him. Maybe money. Maybe a shelter. I couldn’t say. I got home though. I was tired and would have to sleep soon. I put up my calendar and marked the day. I didn’t know what to do. I would keep moving forward.