The longer I live in New York, the more frozen and stony my heart becomes. I worry that some day soon it will be as hard as a stale bagel.
After residing in this fair city for the better part of a decade, I think it might be time to grease up the old compassion button. I'm just not sure how, see.
I know that you can't toss a quarter into the lice-ridden hat of every Tom, Dick and Larry begging for change on the street, but I used to be a lot warmer toward the less fortunate. Once I even traveled down to a Knicks game on Metro North with a boyfriend on a brutally cold winter night, carrying two of his mom's cast off comforters, which we gave to homeless people hanging out by the Garden. Just because.
I used to care.
Now, not so much. Not really at all.
I grew up outside the city, on Long Island. Though I lived only 30 miles from Manhattan, it may as well have been another planet to me. The closest thing we had to a homeless person in Northport was the woman who speed-walked up and down Main Street all day with a leg warmer on her head, yelling at the flag pole. You could say I lived a bit of a sheltered life.
So when I saw a homeless person for the first time in NYC, I started crying. I didn't know what else to do.
Every summer, when my grandparents visited from Florida, my family would take a day trip to the city. My sister and I would dork up in matching Polly Flinders flouncery that my mother insisted we wear (to make us look more attractive to potential abductors, maybe). I'd be holding my plastic Minnie Mouse purse, which was stuffed with dimes given to me by my grandmother as prizes for winning at "The Quiet Game" in the car. We'd go to a restaurant in Chinatown where my sister and I would slurp slippery wonton soup and spin the lazy susan around the middle of the table until one of us got yelled at.
I remember the day I was skipping through the city, in a pink frilly dress, holding my mother's hand, when a filthy, grizzled man staggered up to us and asked my mother for a quarter. I was terrified, and promptly burst into tears.
I'd never seen anyone act with such boldness, nor had I ever seen anyone butt-wasted and covered with feces in the middle of the afternoon. My mother gently explained that in the city, some people didn't have places to live, and so they lived on the street, in alleyways, on the subways, and asked for help getting food and stuff to drink (gin). I could not wrap my head around this, even in the 1970s, when New York was a cesspool of crime and poverty, and before political correctness stopped us from using the terms 'bum' to describe these people, who seemed to be everywhere.
I also could not understand what the fuck was wrong with the grownups all around me, who were somehow able to turn a blind eye and walk right by someone who so clearly needed a hand.
When I first moved to New York, I gave money to everyone. It was partly out of fear. A large percentage of New York's homeless today are simply mentally ill, though not criminally so, but I didn't know this at the time. I thought people who spat curses at subway maps and reeked like cadavers rolled in gorgonzola cheese were a threat to me. It didn't take me long to realize that most of New York's dangerous wackjobs had been hauled out of the city with one-way bus tickets to Paterson, NJ during the Giuliani reign. But if a guy walked on the train, screaming, "I lost my food stamps! It's all my fault! Please, God, won't anybody HELP me?!" I figured, hey, the woman with her hand in her purse is probably the least likely to get shot if this guy decides to really get angry here. So here, screaming man. Here's a quarter. That's a nice screaming man.
Soon I noticed though, that it's a fucking racket for some of these guys. And then I started to get pissed.
The screaming guy works the N train from Lexington Avenue to 42nd Street during the morning rush hour, and it's always the same old story. His approach, to be coarse, loud, and self-deprecating at a time when people have barely finished their coffee, is a good one. Hearing his voice jolts me out of my morning coma and I consider giving him a quarter just so he'll shut the fuck up.
Then there's the irritating 'homeless' mom who's 'living in a shelter with my kids' and 'is trying to find a job, but just needs a little help right now'. She's been working the #6 train since I moved to NY 8 years ago. Her kids should definitely be old enough to get jobs working at McDonalds by now. I'm just not buying it, lady.
See, this is where my heart gets hard. I don't know what to believe. I feel like the truly needy New Yorkers are eclipsed by the theatrics of these loudmouths who ruin it for the rest of them. So, I don't give to anyone anymore. No wonder Manhattanites have the reputation of being selfish assholes.
I guess I need a refresher course in compassion.
Also, more money.
16 hours ago