Thursday, July 28, 2011

Of Bums and Babies

Growing up in NYC, I've seen homeless people my entire life. Eventually, I got to the point where I became completely desensitized to them: the signs asking for help, the cups shaking with spare change, the dishevelment, the stench of someone sleeping on the train in the dead of winter because it's too cold to be outside... I could go on and on. You find yourself at a crossroads at times - wondering if this person really needs your help. Are they really hungry or are they going to blow that $1 on booze or drugs? Or, unfortunately these days, is it just someone who is looking for quick cash or experimenting for a sociology thesis? (My friends in Catholic school told the same tales of Nuns who berated them for helping the homeless because they once gave some poor, desperate soul their spare change and moments later, saw them get into a Lexus. All with the hopes of making you save your pocket money and donate it to the Church, I'm sure.)

But I wanted to help the homeless. I dreamed of winning the lottery and walking the streets of Manhattan, placing $100 bills into those empty, blue coffee cups. Taking those who were less fortunate out for lunches and getting them cleaned up; a new set of clothes and job opportunities to get them on the right track. I remember drafting a whole plan to turn Governor's Island into a shelter for homeless people - giving them free housing so that they could have an address to put on a resume, a place to build a new life for themselves. I shared my plan with my parents and was met with laughter. They asked me why I was even bothering; homeless people put themselves into these positions - there was no Horatio Alger story to be had from these harsh, cold streets. No one was going to magically pull themselves up by their boot straps and get off crack and join the ranks of the middle class. And more then certainly not, there was no way the Government of New York City would ever provide such lush accommodations and go out of their way to help the less fortunate on such a prime piece of real estate.

Over the years, I'd traveled to many other cities and witnessed many other types of homeless people. Those outside of New York seemed to be more angry, more aggressive, more in your face. I wasn't used to be hassled in the mall by someone looking for a dollar, or being threatened and racially discriminated against simply because I wouldn't give up a quarter. For some reason, New York seemed to be a haven for the homeless. Maybe it was the millions of generous immigrants and tourists keeping them well fed (with food, booze or drugs) and satiated. Maybe it was the 24 hour transit system providing temporary homes, keeping them safe and calm, instead of those who attempted to weather the storms or fight - literally - for a space in homeless shelter once a subway closed at 1 am. Maybe in NYC, as much as people like to stereotype us for being rude and distance, the people there just cared more.


We've been in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record. And if you don't have a home to go to at the end of the day, the weather can be unbearable. With heat indexes of up to 115 degrees, all kind of health crises can occur: heat exhaustion, heat stroke, hyperthermia, dehydration, even death. And so, on a 91 degree day, I walked to the bus stop one afternoon and saw a dishelved, homeless man, lying down on the sidewalk. The scene was nothing new to me, I'd seen it a million times before. And so, I just stood back and waited for my bus. Everyone else passed by and went about their business as well: reading books, talking to friends, checking their watches and cell phones. No one else even gave this man a second glance. As I waited, I happened to look over at the homeless man behind my big sunglasses, wondering if it was crack or booze that had him slumped on this sweltering sidewalk. I also noticed a hospital bracelet on his wrist; he had probably been brought in for being drunk and hooked up to a banana bag to dry himself out for the night, then quickly released since he couldn't afford to pay. Just your same typical homeless sob story.

But then, something happened. A man who I frequently ride the bus with knelt down next to the homeless man. He was asking him if he was ok. And I saw the homeless man weakly reach a hand out to touch the man's knee, and he shook his head "no". The man from the bus noticed the hospital bracelet and asked when he had been released. Then, he took his cell phone from his pocket and called 911. It was only at this point that other people began to take notice. Everyone at the bus stop turned their heads to watch the scene: this generous and kind and selfless man, not caring about who this homeless man was or what he had done wrong in his life to get him to this point - only worrying that it was hot and here a man was suffering on a scalding sidewalk. A man who was just like us: a human being.

You could sense now that everyone else at the bus stop had become unnerved, their self-consciousness beginning to show. (I was not immune to this feeling.) You could see the wheels spinning in their heads that maybe they could have stopped to help, should have stopped to help, could have called 911. A young girl with curly hair looked especially nervous. Another older woman made a face of shock and slightly disgusted worry while taking another look at the man lying on the ground. And as the man tried to explain on the phone where he was and what was going on, the young girl asked the homeless man if he needed water - to which he weakly nodded his head yes. Before she could produce a bottle from her bag, another young man pulled out a Gatorade bottle of water and placed it down on the ground next to him.

As my bus pulled up and I began to board, everything else in the world just seemed trivial to me. Normally, I would have complained about the bus being crowded and having to stand, but now, I realize that there are so many worse things that could happen to me. Worse positions that I could be in in my life. Standing on a bus right at that moment was almost a luxury. I felt like the biggest piece of shit on the face of the Earth for just letting a man lie there on the verge of death. And as we pulled away from the curb, the man who rides my bus had sat himself down on the ground next to the homeless man, who also had righted himself & was drinking from the gatorade bottle. He was waiting with him for the ambulance to come. He had made a sacrifice for someone else, done something that we all could do on a daily basis, if only we took the time to stop.

I hope to see him on the bus this week - and while I may not verbally thank him for what he did, I will always give a knowing nod.

Black, White, Red, Green, Yellow, Man, Woman, Gay, Straight, Transgendered - We are all human. It just takes instances like that to realize it sometimes.

Speaking of human life, I have reached that age where it seems that everything has become baby-centric. Oh, don't worry, I'm not planning on getting pregnant anytime soon. (Or ever.) But recently, a friend of mine and I were at a party at which there was a newborn baby. Not being a very big fan of children, I spent the night giving this baby the side eye. Finally at one point in the night, my friend took over baby holding duty. I came slightly closer to inspect the infant with it's fuzzy head and tiny baby acne. I screwed my nose up at this tiny being, bracing myself for its inevitable wailing cries. It was being swaddled in a blanket and then, its tiny little foot poked free. Out of curiosity, I extended my index finger to poke at the bottom of its foot and then...

I caught baby fever.

The bottom of that foot was so silky smooth and soft. Like nothing I had ever felt before! I make it a point to avoid touching or holding or being around babies, so I had absolutely no idea what this baby foot was going to feel like. And then, like some kind of weird tic, I couldn't stop touching it. I was stroking the foot and holding it and then playing with both feet! What was wrong with me!? Did I know what I was doing? This was a BABY! You don't like babies, I told myself. But... but... so soft! I couldn't resist!

After I left, my baby fever wore off and I returned to normal. But I couldn't help but think about my friend holding the baby. I had never really thought of her as the mommy type; a tough girl from the Bronx with a biting tongue and a swagger like no other. Sure, we had worked at camp together with little kids when we were in college, but did I picture her with her own brood one day? I guess I had never really thought of it back then. She's been married for just over 2 years now; her husband coming from a very large family - and almost all of his siblings have already continued the blood line.

She had some problems conceiving last year, possibly the cause of bad genetics; her mother had had 3 miscarriages before my friend was born - and she was the first of 3 children. Her oldest younger brother was born with a disability. So I worried for her. Her and her husband want a big family: Would she have the same problems as her mom? Obviously, having a child with a disability wouldn't be a problem; she would be readily prepared for that and thoroughly accepting. That was one of my biggest fears about having a child. Would I be able to handle everything that goes into this process? Would I be able to handle the waiting for ovulation? Could I handle a miscarriage or a still birth? Could I handle it if my child was born handicapped? I just don't think I could be strong enough to deal with that. But my friend - well, she's the strongest person I know.

And now, she's finally pregnant. Due in February.

And I can't wait to reach my finger out to touch her baby's tiny little smooth foot for the first time and catch baby fever all over again.

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