how did this could this come to this? (orig. published Nov. 12, 2010)
I was stopped by a man at the corner of 114th and Amsterdam one night. It was a little after 11:00 and I was walking home with my headphones in. You know how when somebody is asking you for money or clearly about to ask you for something, and you have to make a split second choice to either admit that you see the person, or pretend that you don’t?
He said he was needing baby formula for his infant son. Figures that the one person who admits that she’s seen him and stops to talk is the one who moved here just a month ago and has no idea where anything is (much less baby formula). (Turns out he just moved here too, from Jamaica.) He sounded tired and frustrated and scared, and who wouldn’t be? Figures that the one person who stops is a person who’s not real good at getting herself off of the tracks she runs on, and diverts course to help a person who pops up out of the sidewalk.
My friend Xtine has pointed out that it is not my job to apologize because White America, or America in General, or New York City in particular, can be an unforgiving and unwelcoming place to live. It’s not my fault that other people ignore the shabby looking black man begging for baby formula, if I stop to talk to him. And she’s right. But I still feel bad–why should I feel good about stopping to give this guy the time of day when I didn’t stop to give him anything else? I probably could have bought him a can of baby formula, lord knows I’ve done things with my money that are far more stupid and wasteful. I talked my way out of it, like I do, and went on my way–then I felt guilty and actually turned back to try and find him. Didn’t work, of course. Hopefully he found what he needed–hopefully my most minimal of favors was enough.
Another incident happened at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. A homeless woman, who was delusional/off her meds/self-medicating was blocking the front counter. She was convinced that the staff had stolen her suitcase, and was demanding that they return it. (I’m guessing she passed out on the steps of St. John the Divine, which is across the street, and somebody stole her suitcase out from under her while she slept. I don’t think she made up the suitcase entirely.) The staff, of course, could not return something they didn’t have, and demanded that she leave. She declined to leave without her suitcase. They told her they were calling the cops; she declared that this was a fortunate turn of events as the cops would surely arrest all of them for stealing her suitcase. A patron tried to help, which led to the staff begging the patron to not buy her food or give her money–which sounds heartless, and what I’m about to say isn’t much better, but homeless folks are kinda like stray dogs. If you feed them, or let them beg inside the store, or if they otherwise realize that you store is a place where they can get resources, it’s really hard to get them to stop, and ultimately it’s bad for business to have homeless folks panhandling inside the store.
Eventually the woman was herded outside, but she didn’t go very far–she took to blocking the door to the shop. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to start a boycott, or if she was charging admission to the store. The staff chased her as far as the corner, where she stayed for awhile, ranting to herself.
I don’t know why I tell these stories, really. Sometimes, when people are interacting or having a conversation, they’re on the same page–even if they’re in active disagreement about something, they at least agree on what they’re talking about. Then there are times when the participants in a conversation aren’t even having the same conversation. The barista at the HPS and the homeless lady weren’t really having a disagreement, it was that they couldn’t acknowledge the other person’s needs to begin with. They weren’t even having a conversation, really, they were just talking at each other in separate monologues. Me and the Jamaican dad had a less confrontational version of the same problem. That the lady lost her suitcase is immaterial to the barista who wants his workplace safe for his patrons; that she is bothering people is immaterial to the woman looking for her suitcase. How does that confrontation possibly work out for either of them? It doesn’t.
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