“Do you think you could help us get a few things to eat at that grocery store until our food stamps for the month come in?” An elderly man pushing a baby in a stroller whispered this question to me two blocks from my apartment. After so many years in New York, I’ve grown used to people asking for help on the streets. So used to it that I can now *almost* get out a “sorry” with a smile and be on my way without feeling nauseous. Almost.
But this man was different. I’m not sure if it was his phrasing, tone of voice, simple request, or the baby carriage that did it. I just couldn’t walk away from him without helping. I was carrying two boxes of Total cereal that I had just bought and I handed one to him. “Does this help?” I asked. “It sure does,” he said with a smile. His cracked gold tooth gleamed in the late morning sun.
He’s haunting me now, even though I did help him. A box of cereal wasn’t enough. I know that. What he really needs is a job, a source of income that eliminates his need to beg at all, gets him off of food stamps, and helps him contribute whatever talents he has to the world. That’s a dignity we all deserve. I don’t have that job for him so all I could do in that moment was hand him a box of cereal. It feels woefully inadequate to look into another person’s eyes, see their need, and realize we can’t meet it. It leaves a hole, a crack in my well-crafted New York City armor, and perhaps that is the crack where the light will enter. Thanks, Leonard Cohen. I’m beginning to hear your Anthem.