I’d only ever heard bad things about homeless people. My mom once told me a USC student had been assaulted by a homeless man behind a row of bushes on campus one night. Then a girl in one of my classes said that a homeless man tried to open her car door when she was stopped at a red light, and had just barely managed to roll up her window when he approached. I’d seen them standing at the ends of interstate ramps with cardboard box signs, maybe an old backpack sagging against their leg. I once was in a play about the homeless. My character was more or less a prostitute. I couldn’t relate to her at all. I don’t think any of us could. “You’re too clean,” said one of the judges. We didn’t know anything about being dirty.
Cars blared horns. Lights and signs flashed above us. People linked arms as they took on the crowd. We crossed over a side road in Times Square, a subway station just ahead. In front of us, a boy set down an empty cup on the window ledge of a Duane Reade. I thought of picking it up and throwing it away, or better yet, picking it up and throwing it at the back of his head. “The street’s not your trash can, asshole!” I’d yell. But, naturally, I didn’t have the gumption.
When we reached the station my grandfather stopped on the staircase. “Did that sign say if there was an agent in here?”
“There is,” a woman said coming in behind us.
As we walked onto the first platform, a dark-skinned, waif-like man was sitting down against the wall. It looked like someone had just bought him some fast food, and he began using his cup as a bank to collect money. His gray hair stuck out from beneath a tattered hat. His mouth slumped into a straight line, as though he didn’t have any teeth. He wore a yellow rain jacket and moth-eaten brown pants. As we turned onto the second staircase, a man coming off the train dropped some change into the homeless man’s cup.
We walked around, clogging the station with uncertainty, looking for a sign that said Grove Street or Jersey City. There was nothing. We walked back towards the stairs. I thought of getting out one of my 20s – I had plenty – and dropping it in the homeless man’s cup, but we were walking so fast, and I was afraid of what my family might say if they saw me giving him money. So I walked on, offering a small smile of…what? Condolence? Pity? “Let’s try not to end up on the streets of New York tonight like that guy back there,” my mother said.
That night in the motor home, I lay on the couch trying to sleep, but all I could see was this man’s face. It was unlike any other expression I’d ever seen. It bore resignation, yet acceptance, and age. He even looked so much as comfortable there, confident in his reliance on the city and its people. And hadn’t someone bought him food, a drink, given him money? Was he a veteran who’d come back from the war to no family, no job prospects, no chances? What was his story? The wondering about it strained my throat, clogged my nose, blurred my vision. I sniffed and couldn’t breathe. I wiped my eyes on my pillow case. My mother’s steady snoring had stopped, and I wondered if she was awake, listening to me. I went to the bathroom to blow my nose, hoping no one could hear me. I didn’t want any questions. I didn’t want to have to explain the real reason behind my tears. No one else in the motor home was up in the middle of the night crying over this man. I didn’t think they would understand.