Before, and you know what I mean, before this all happened, before the coronavirus, before New York City went into pause, and then the whole country, I would walk home at night from the Bryant Park subway station passing as many as eight homeless men sleeping on Fifth Avenue and various side streets. I was never afraid, day or night. These men were my neighbors; some had lived here longer than I did. And they knew that if they frightened us, especially the older residents, that the police would chase them away. It was safe for them here, too. I chose one man to befriend: Isaac. He slept on 36th Street and disappeared during the day, returning at 5:00 in the afternoon. He never actively begged for money, but one day I just stopped and engaged him in conversation.
He had come to New York from Texas five years ago, had worked for a while, but then lost his job and finally his room. From our conversations, he seemed to be a bit slow, perhaps from medication or the lack of it, and he also didn’t look me in the eyes. I always gave him money when I saw him, and sometimes food if I was coming back from the bakery on the corner.
About six months ago, he told me excitedly that he was finally getting permanent housing and hopefully a job.
I haven’t seen him since. The homeless man who remains on 36th Street had never been nice to Isaac. This other man, I don’t know his name, has a temper. He sometimes showed signs of fighting, a black eye or band aid on his face. Isaac said he was a junkie who would occasionally get into fights with another homeless man who was his buddy. They divided up two corners, 36th and 37th Streets, approached cars at the red light, and begged for money. They were out day after day. They never asked me for money, knew me as a resident. We just didn’t acknowledge each other although every Christmas Eve I gave these men a loaf of bread.
After, and you know what I mean, after the coronavirus came to New York, the number of homeless men on the street surrounding our apartment building has exploded. Instead of just the usual crew, shy and unobtrusive, some of these new men are desperate, mentally ill, and very out of control. One afternoon when we were already socially distancing, but before I started to wear a face covering outside, a strange man, someone unfamiliar to me, walked right up to me, and shouted into my face, “I am desperate for food.”
“Move away from me,” I shouted back and turned away from him.
He started to mock me, “Move away from me, move away from me. I need food and you, (expletive, expletive) tell me to move away from you.”
What does he know of social distancing? He needs food, shelter, and someone to calm him. But I was afraid, so afraid that I didn’t venture outside for two weeks. This feeling doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve lived fearlessly in New York City, taking subways and buses to all five boroughs, coming home alone at night. No one has ever bothered me; I’m a fierce walker.
A few Sundays ago I listened to a dharma talk by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk, who was asked by a nurse how she might deal with the overwhelming fear that she feels whenever she approaches the hospital for a shift. Pema responded that we all are experiencing fear, that the doctors, nurses, health care aides, ambulance drivers, orderlies, even the patients are afraid. Rather than isolate ourselves within our fear, understand this fear as our commonality. Our fear can bring us together.
With Pema Chodron in mind, the next time I went out for a walk, I saw the rough man who approaches the cars on the corner of 36th Street. He still does not have a name because I still haven’t asked. Although I was wearing a red scarf across my face, he recognized me and began the conversation. “How are you?” I told him, “Alright,” and asked him how he was getting on. “It’s okay,” he responded. Without him needing to ask I placed some cash on an abandoned telephone cubby so that we would stay six feet apart. He said thank you, picked it up, and we parted.
And last night, at 7:00 when my building opens its windows and everyone claps and hoots and bangs pots to cheer on the health care workers as they change shift, another homeless man, new to the neighborhood, jumped up and joined in the celebration. He tapped on the railing and shouted and danced joyfully for just a few minutes before returning to his makeshift shelter by the stoop of The Morgan Library.
Another Buddhist monk, Roshi Joan Halifax, spoke this weekend about ruthless compassion. To live morally, we must acknowledge what has been revealed during the coronavirus, during the pause: these inequalities and inequities cannot be ignored when we join together to rebuild a more just, fair, and sustainable society.