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Two homeless men

Two homeless men

1 of 2 stories from the coldest Valentine’s Day in NYC history.

Sitting there, crowded subway. People squished on either side–arm around your girlfriend and her shiny, slippery, puffy coat; and the wide round thighs and big black coat of the person on your right spilling into your experience, hemming you in, holding you tight. People all along the overhead poles, standing in front of you closer than people normally get, leaning over you, their coats unzipped and faces staring at an ad-lined concaving wall over your head.

A young white man enters by the door across and eight feet over. Subway’s not yet so crowded that you can’t see him clearly. He’s unshaven with a stubble growing long, looking like porcupine quills lying down. A thick blue jacket. Not a thin guy, but not fat either–a little stocky, chunky, horse-shoe-shaped. Gray hood and blue knit cap over his head; a fringe of dark hair showing beneath the cap. Dirty faded blue jeans. Pale face a little horseshoe shaped and not quite fat but not quite thin or square, kind of edging towards heavy; and the corners of the eyes and lips slanting down sadly, in resignation, which matches his monotone that is a little nasally and maybe borders on whine but that is more like the pained, self-conscious deadpan of an AA confession: (the speaker pauses to glance down from time to time; then he revs back up–head babybirds a bit back and up as he plaintive shouts the top of his next volley, a height from which his delivery soon drops down into a steady doldrum) “Hello, I’m very sorry to disturb you. My name’s (witness honestly forgets). I am 29 years old and I am here because I am homeless and I am out of work. I can promise you that I will not be out of work forever; I am going to get a job and get myself back on my feet as soon as I can–that’s a promise I’ve made to myself. And even though I’ve got an education, I don’t care–I’ll wash dishes if I have to, anything it takes. I’ve promised myself that much. But today I am here asking for some help because I am homeless and out of work. I tried to find a place to sleep all last night, but I couldn’t lie down anywhere for more than a few minutes without feeling like I was going into hypothermia.” He went on to say that he checked himself into the ER last night because he was so cold. They kicked him out after 45 minutes but it was worth it just to warm up for a little while. He’s been trying to get enough money for a warm meal; he’s about halfway there; if anyone could be kind enough to help him out–. A 40ish black lady sitting behind and to one side of him, stout and wrapped up in her coat and hood and hat like a baby in a papoose, poked at him; he reached back with a cupped hand and she inserted something into it. She had a round face, a small, flat, round-edged nose, big eyes, a slight smile on her full lips as she looked a little up and to her left towards the troubled young man.

The man heads away from you, and you can’t see him in the crowd. At the next stop a medium-build, sharp-cheeked black man in a sturdy green workman’s coat (the kind that looks more solid than puffy and more matte than shiny–you see them on construction workers) and worn but clean and wrinkle-free black jeans. He gives his speech in a clear voice with his head up. He’s homeless and he’s out of work, but he’s not looking for a handout. He’s got these papers from a local homeless advocacy organization that he is selling for a dollar, two dollars–whatever you want to pay.

The newcomer heads towards the same direction as the other guy. Then there’s a little bubble in the crowd like when a pebble makes ripples in a creek. Arms overhead, stumbling back a little: “.. I didn’t even know …” Backpedals towards your spot, talking loud and stern towards the direction he came: “But do it the right way! Do it the right way! Do it the right way.” And a little later, looking over with a flash in his eyes like he heard something offensive; but he’s right next to you and you heard nothing; it could also just be the pique of recalling and further unpacking a past grievance: “you’re 37?! I’m 53! I’m retired! I’ve been at this since 9:30 in the morning!” (It is about 2pm) “And what is this? [arm stretched out long, but limply, pathetically] You gonna just hold out your hand and say oh, gimme gimme gimme–what is that? And you wonder why people don’t give you nothin! You can do better than that–you can do better than that, son,–you can do much better than that!”

Where was the original guy? You can’t see him. The new comer finishes scolding and exits when the doors open at the next stop. You feel sad, overwhelmed.

Witness: AMW; Author: BW; Accuracy: Not all the details, but something like that.