By Claudine Wright
He entered the restaurant with the mien of a man on a desperate but urgent mission. Slight. Intense. Determined. He carried two small bundles, one a supermarket plastic bag, its contents of clothing rolled into a ball, clearly visible through its flimsiness; the other, a paper shopping bag, its contents, unknown. The shabby clothing, the oblique, slightly deranged look in his eyes were the other telltale signs. He was definitely homeless and probably mentally ill. He certainly seemed poor and he was definitely out of place in a Japanese restaurant on the upper east side, even one as decidedly middle-brow as Dosanko’s.
I had just given my order for a bowl of miso soup with soba noodles when he walked in. The hostess spotted him first. Menu in hand, she more than likely quickly assessed his appearance and decided he needed to be hustled out. Immediately. She moved sideways towards the counter where the menus and glasses were kept, all the while conveying her need for help in rapid-fire Japanese. I didn’t need to understand what she was saying. The high pitch of her voice and the slight break, obvious to me even in a foreign language told me her truth: she was terrified.
The rest of the staff stood rooted to their respective spots as if time had stood still. They clearly were not quite sure what to make of him. One of them, perhaps a waiter, went over to the man and tried to strong arm him out of the restaurant, but he would have none of it. Several of the other waiters came over to the aid of their fellow staffer. The man brushed them aside, pushing past them and making his way almost to the center of the room, and like a homing pigeon scanned the restaurant floor briefly, targeted a hapless diner and headed for his table.
Most of the patrons at this time of day were men. Men in business suits, some alone, some with newspapers turned to Sports or Finance; men in groups - probably conference attendees at the nearby hotel, or office buddies out for a quick, cheap lunch. Invariably as men would, they head off his advance, flicking their newspapers at him as if swatting a fly and hiding their heads behind their papers, pretending to read. One man, thick, in a too tight suit and wire-rimmed glasses is reading so intently that he does not see the tight coil of energy coming at him. He is caught off guard. The homeless man asks him for money. The man blinks at him uncomprehendingly. Clearly an out-of-towner. It takes him a while before he fully grasps what’s going on. As it slowly dawns on him that he is being harassed for money, he pales a bit. His eyes betray his fear. They dart around quickly, trying to assess the situation. The wait staff seems at a loss as to what to do. They are speaking to each other in fast exchanges. Unable to understand, I imagine that the debate is about whether or not they should call the police or try, despite their fear, to eject him on their own. Mr. Wire-rim Glasses senses this too, makes his decision, and without so much as a dismissal, opens his New York Times full-page style, burying his entire upper body behind it. The homeless man is momentarily deterred, and after glaring at the barrier of the newspaper between him and his mark, makes a sucking sound through his teeth and moves on, accosting table after table. He undoubtedly has been rebuffed before, and fueled either by hunger or mental anguish, he will not be denied.
The waiters have gathered some courage by now and they try to corner him to tell him he cannot harass the patrons. He either does not understand their Japanese-accented English or he does not care. He regards them as one would an annoyance, as one would a persistent child, and ignores them circling around them, trying to get to as many tables as he can. The waiters, if truth be told seem slightly afraid of him. It cannot be a normal occurrence for a homeless man to walk in, in the middle of the day and “work” the tables. Plus he seems unhinged and is getting more so as his demands for money are not being met. This is clearly a situation they have not dealt with before. They still try though, the headwaiter now speaking loudly, still in Japanese, but I think I hear the world “police.” The word is said in English, perhaps so that the intruder would hear it, but even if he does it, it doesn’t change his actions. He continues methodically, table after table.
Then he sees me. I was hoping he would stick to just asking the men. I was hoping I could have my soup and for once be mercifully left alone by yet another homeless person. Perhaps I do not get asked for help more than the average person. Perhaps it is just my imagination or my arrogance that makes me believe that homeless people see in me a willing giver. But no matter. Today, I just want to enjoy my soup. But he sees me and his eyes change. I imagine that he sees in me a kindred spirit. Perhaps he thinks that I, being black like him should surely understand. Perhaps as a woman I should be more compassionate than the suited businessmen who brushed him aside so readily. I breathe heavily, waiting for him to come over. I am wondering why that call to the police is not being made. Some of the newspaper flickers are watching me uneasily. No one moves though and the insistent ring of the phones tells me that orders are being phoned in. The staff has probably decided that it makes more business sense to take phone orders than to call the police. I don’t understand the logic.
The man comes over to my table. Without prompting he decides to tell me his story: He just got out of jail. He was dropped off the bus that ferried him from the jail to the outskirts of the city and given a subway token (this was before the era of metro cards). He did not have enough money to get to a shelter. He had been panhandling on the street, but it was too cold, all he needed was enough money for a token. Could I give him $1.50. I had a dollar fifty. I could have given it to him, but I was tired too. I was cold too. All I wanted was a chance to have some soup and be allowed the privacy of my thoughts.
I wanted to ask why did he not stay on the train or make the connections to the shelter with the one token he had, but thought better of it. Close up, he was frightening. The intensity implicit in his manner was obvious in his eyes. He seemed set on a hair trigger, like a mouse trap set to go off. One hates to make judgments, but he seemed excitable, nervous, under the influence of something or needing medication to quiet an even more serious disturbance. I decided his jail story could very well be true. The usual homeless story is fire, death of loved ones, job loss—recent parolee is not one I’ve heard before. And news stories do chronicle the plight of the mentally ill, jailed for crimes, medicated in jail, but released without the medication that kept them stable, and given a subway token and a bus ride to nowhere in particular.
My soup arrives. My appetite is completely gone now, but I am going through the motions. I am trying to decide what to do. He repeats his request for money. I counter with the offer of my soup. He does not want it. He asks again for $1.50. His eyes are now boiling. For reasons I cannot understand, I become enraged at his demands. I decide not to be afraid, and a wicked wind of dust arises in my normally generous heart. I decide not to give him the $1.50. Even Mother Theresa didn’t help everyone. I offer him my soup again to ward off the day’s chill and suggest that he asks someone else for the dollar fifty.
He refuses my soup. I pull the soup back towards me and take a sip. It is warm and savory and tastes good despite the venom that is being served up to me in his eyes. His eyes. Those eyes, intense, dark, piercing. I look up at him again., Those eyes. They register hurt, a hurt not just from my not giving him a dollar fifty for a subway ride. This hurt was deep; it went back for generations. This was the kind of hurt that gets passed down. In that moment of my saying no, his mind probably took him back through all the times he had been told no. In my voice he probably heard all the women in his life, the ones who should have offered him succor and comfort telling him no yet again, when he was so needy. I had hurt him. His eyes told me as much. He could not believe it and in that moment, he could not bear it. I wanted to relent, to offer my aid, anything to stop the torrent that was coming. I saw his eyes gather up a storm. I saw his disappointment, his hurt coalescing into an anger that he could not contain and I was sure, I could not withstand. I waited for the explosion. The anger, the rage came racing back and exploded in one word: BITCH!
If the other patrons were trying to ignore my interactions with him, they were now inexorably drawn into my tableside drama. The entire restaurant went still. If the proverbial pin had dropped at that moment, it would have reverberated around the room. Even the phone ceased to ring. With a collective intake of breath, the wait staff, trays in hand, stood frozen. The other patrons look at me anxiously. I wonder what to do next. I check my emotions. I am curiously unmoved. I am no longer afraid. For a moment I think, “well if you think I am going to give you a dollar fifty now, you can forget it!” but it is a fleeting thought. I am amazed though that I am still not moved to give him money. I meet his eyes but say nothing. I want to repeat my offer of soup, but stop myself. A whole range of emotions play on his face, from disappointment, anger, rage, hurt and back to disappointment again. And finally sadness, his mouth quiver slightly as if he is about to cry. Now I want to relent. I want to tell him I am sorry for ignoring his pain. I want to tell him I’m sorry for all the times he’s been hurt, by women, by men by whomever and whatever landed him in jail and made his need for a dollar fifty on a cold day in winter so urgent and so desperate. But I don’t want to reward him. I don’t want to reward him for walking into a strange restaurant and calling me a name by which I’ve never been called for something as insignificant as a subway token. I hold my ground and I meet his gaze.
He is clear now that I won’t help. He is clear that he can’t again go another table to ask for money. He begins to collect himself. His eyes tell me that I am just like all the others. He bends slightly to pick up the shopping bag he had placed on the empty chair across from me, still holding my eyes. His eyes well up, but he spins around and storms out clutching his bags, before the tears can spill onto his face. I think for a moment that he might turn around to give me one last, lethal parting shot, but he does not. He leaves just as suddenly as he had entered.
The hum of the restaurant surges back and resumes its regular cacophony in a matter of seconds. I pick up my spoon. My soup is now stone cold and the noodle dish I had ordered has congealed into an unattractive mess. I wondered where my sudden hardness of heart had come from. I rationalize that it wouldn’t take him long to score a dollar fifty, so he would be okay. I try to tell myself that I should not feel guilty for not helping him. That I can’t help everyone, that perhaps his karma dictated that he be told no. But I can’t reason my way out of it. I can’t make sense my own motives and behavior. I call the waiter over and ask for the check. $10.50. I just blew $10.50 plus tip on a meal I no longer wanted to eat.
Neither he nor I got what we wanted on that day.
Estimates vary, but even the most casual observer of the obviously homeless people in New York City can surmise that many are suffering from some form of mentall illness. They talk to themselves, have angry outbursts at imageined adversaries, and somtimes, sadly, commit crimes like pushing bystanders to their deaths in front of oncoming trains in the subsay,
The Treatment Advocacy Center adresses the problem of the homeless mentally ill on their Web site. A nonprofit organization founded in 1998, the Center, according to their Web site, is “dedicated to eliminating legal and other barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness. The organization promotes laws, policies and practices for the delivery of psychiatric care and supports the development of innovative treatments for and research into the causes of severe and persistent psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”