Thursday, April 12, 2007

My 15 cents

I was sitting at a deli, overlooking a park and some Greek revival townhouses when I saw a homeless man asking people for change. He passed in front of me as I drank my hazelnut coffee and bagel loaded with copious amounts of cream cheese. The man then turned and entered the deli asking for money for a sandwich. I didn’t know where he was throwing his voice and so kept my focus on my meal, choking on the great globs of cream cheese oozing between the pieces of severed bagel that I was stuffing into my mouth. The homeless man spoke louder and I turned around. He mumbled something about respect and I tried to apologize to him but I wasn’t able to, due to my inability to swallow what I was eating. Like all beggars he “just wanted a sandwich,” and though being a college student living on a fixed income, I was willing to help him out. In my pocket I had some change, I wanted to save the quarters for later, they would help me get a bagel or croissant from a street vendor, but I had a dime and a nickel, 15 cents that I was perfectly willing to give to this man so he could go and buy himself a meal. I knew I wasn’t going to use it.

As I started digging, a look of disgust filled his face and suddenly he didn’t want anything to do with me, or my 15 cents. “No man put it away , I don’t want it if you’re gonna be like that…” he then stumbled out and walked down the street, heading towards Union Square. At first I shrugged, “Well, it’s your fifteen cents…” I don’t know if he heard me. As he escaped the last of my sight I wondered what the problem was and if I should exit from the deli through the other door and loop around the block to avoid him. I decided against it, it would be cowardly and there was no reason to be afraid of the beggar, who for some reason was too proud to accept money from me once asking for it. So I left the deli and noticed that despite what conclusions and resolutions my mind had reached, my body was heading out the exit that would lead away from the path of the homeless man.

Fate thwarted my body however. As soon as I was outside and standing before an old grey stone building, there appeared in the sky a dazzling display of walling mist. It sparkled like gold in the air. At first I was drawn to it, think naively it was snow, then n fear that it might be something flaking off the building, then I was unimpressed by it, watching the droplets fall and soak the street. So I changed direction and walked up to Union Square, following the man who had rejected my 15 cents. Turning the corner I found myself in the middle of the labor day art bazaar lining the streets and setting up. Painters and sculptors and weavers were setting up canvases and statues, flowers and cityscapes, traditional and abstract, solemn and nude, in front of me. I felt lost in a jungle of broad strokes and solid lines. The man was nowhere to be seen.
As I walked a few more blocks and saw Union Square coming into view, hearing its traffic and flow of people, I managed to let the sound of another beggar shaking a plastic cup come into my ears, and then after pausing to look at him huddled in a corner covered with the ruins of posters and past graffiti, into my heart. I decided to let him have my fifteen cents, to see if there was something about me personally which all disadvantaged people find despicable and make my generosity feel like a theft. So I stopped before the man and began digging in my pockets for the dime and nickel which had been seen as dirty money only minutes before. The homeless man took it happily and blessed me, I could not have gotten a more heartfelt benediction from the pope himself.

Perhaps as in all things it was about location. One disturbed me while I was trying to have a private moment in front of the City and the other gave me something to do while making a trip. I suppose my faces and attitudes, the tone of my voices and the positions of my hips and shoulders, the angle of my neck, were different. Or maybe the other one hated nickels and dimes as much as I do.