By Claudine Wright
Even in her faded, too-big coat she had presence. Tall, broad, stately even. You could easily tell she was homeless. There were the tell-tale signs--bulging paper bags, stuffed one inside the other for reinforcement, their fragile handles bound across by a braided plastic bag, the too many layers of cast-off clothing, the wild hair, the look of rootlessness. Yet as she entered the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I took notice. I had made a rare bus trip from New Jersey on a Sunday to take care of some unfinished work in the office and was just about to exit the building when I saw her.
She walked a few paces in from the double set of doors and stopped. She stood facing the passersby leaving the building, scanning the crowd. It was a pretty big crowd for a late Fall Sunday afternoon. Her gaze is intense, purposeful, as if she is looking for someone. People hurry by her, hoping to avoid what they consider would be the inevitable plea for money. She disregards them, continuing to search the crowd. I want to hurry by too, not wanting to be the one asked. I have a hard time saying no, and homeless people seem to know that, invariably making a beeline for me. As I watch her scanning the crowd, our eyes meet. I think, “Oh no, here it comes.” I am unable to hurry away though; something in her manner compels me to stay. I wait. She walks over to me and says matter-of-factly, “I’m hungry, could you get me something to eat?” That was it. No pleading, no story, just a statement of fact and a request. If I occasionally deny a request for money, I never deny a request for food. “Okay”, I tell her. “I’ll get you something to eat. Where do you want to go?” She looks around. There is a mini food court nearby, Chinese fast food, Italian, and a TGIF. I suggest the Chinese food. “You’ll get more food,” I tell her helpfully.
We walk over to the counter and look at the offerings of prepared food in the trays. “The ribs look good,” I suggest. The woman ignores me and looks up at the menu on the wall behind the two young girls at the counter. She begins to order. One of the girls accurately sizes her up as being homeless and demands sharply and loudly, “You got money? Let me see your money”. Her tone is sharp, and even with her thick Chinese accent, I can sense the disdain. Perhaps homeless people without money order food they can’t pay for all the time. I decide not to judge her.
As if on cue at this exchange, the man who was leaning unconcernedly against the door to the kitchen—maybe a cook or the manager--straightens up. He walks over to the girls, slowly removing the toothpick from the corner of his mouth, and throws it to the floor. He tenses for trouble.
The woman turns to look at me. Her expression is one of suppressed outrage. Her look seems to say to me: Do you see the indignity that I have to put up with? I see in her eyes the anger, the shame, the rage, the embarrassment of being yelled at by a girl, the humiliation of the question: Do you have the money to pay for your food? I feel her anger and I embrace it.
“I’m paying for her,” I shoot back at the girl. Her gaze turns to me. She sizes me up too, trying to decide if my outfit of worn sweats and sneakers is by choice or if I am just one of the marginally better-off homeless. She doesn’t ask me to show her my money. I’ve passed her test.
The man senses the tension and takes the Styrofoam container from the girl’s hand. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he says to her. She steps back, though still eying us suspiciously.
“What you want?” he barks at the woman. She turns her attention back to ordering.
“I’ll have the combination ribs.” She pauses and then asks, “Can I get that with white rice? I don’t like fried rice.”
The man dumps the spoonful of fried rice he had begun to ladle and tells her yes. The girl, perhaps feeling chagrined, takes the container from him and continues to serve up the order. Perhaps feeling a little guilty as well, she is a bit more generous than she needs to be. She heaps huge spoonfuls of rice and ribs, and douses the piles of food with slatherings of brown gravy. She perches an egg roll on top of the rice.
“Come with soup or soda,” she says. “Which one you want?” The woman says soda. The other girl watching, goes over to the soda machine and asks a bit more kindly than her counterpart, “What kind soda you want?”
The woman frowns impatiently and says, “I don’t want canned soda.” She looks at me, “Can I have a fountain soda?”
“Fountain soda extra,” the girl holding the door says excitedly, as if we would haggle over its inclusion in the combo.
The woman does a slow intake and breath and looks at me. By now we understand each other. She is being demeaned, disrespected - the indignity continues. “She can have a fountain soda,” I tell her. I remind her that I am paying.
“I’ll have a large Coke,” she says. $2.25 is added to the $5.99 for the combo meal. My act of generosity is getting costly. As they are packing up the food, the woman has a sudden afterthought. “Can I get some fried chicken wings?”
“Chicken wings extra!” the girls exclaim in unison. By now it’s a comedy.
“It’s okay, I know its extra,” I tell them. Another $2.50 is added to the bill. With tax, I’ve spent $11.55 to buy dinner for a total stranger. It is more than I would pay for my own lunch.. I hand over the lone $20 bill I had just taken out of the ATM.
The woman, still seething at the not so hidden insults, grabs the food, adjusts her bundles to accommodate the new addition and storms away while I am still getting my change. Not a thank you, not a word of the stock phrase of gratitude of the homeless, God bless you. Not even so much as a backward glance.
I get the $8.45 change and continue on my way. I search my emotions. Am I upset that she did not say thanks, that I was not even acknowledged? I find that curiously, I am not. I think back on the woman, Her diction was so perfect, her manner so precise, her sense of indignation so very well placed. I wonder who and what she had been before she became one of the nameless, faceless homeless we try our best to avoid. I think she must have been hungry and hunger can make us fierce. We have no time for niceties when our stomachs cry out for food. A hungry man is an angry man, the old proverb says. The times when I have been hungry I have been irritable, and I knew that I could choose to eat at any time. What must it feel like, to be hungry, having to search crowds for the one friendly face that will take you at your word, and buy you a meal when you say simply, “I am hungry.” I could forgive her momentary lapse in manners; her forgetfulness in saying thanks. I could live another day without her thanks--or her blessing.
Shoving the change into my pocket, I head down the stairs for the Number 7 train. A little old man often holds the door open to the entrance to the turnstiles. Paper cup in hand, he will offer a smile to those who look at him and he repeats in a low, continuous mantra, “Thank you,” to those who put a coin or the occasional bill in his cup, and a “Have a nice day” to everyone who passes by.
He is small, trim, his neatly trimmed white beard contrasting his dark skin. He looks like many of the old men I know. Without a forethought I pull the $5 dollar bill from my pocket and put it in his cup. His eyes leave mine just for a second, and they light up as he notices the denomination on the bill. I smile and continue walking.
“Thank you,” he calls out to my receding back, “God bless you!”
Exact numbers on the number of homeless people across the United States are hard to come by. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the difficulty in getting firm numbers is due in part to the different tabulating methodologies in each of the 50 states, and that many people who experience homelessness are never counted because while they may take advantage of social services, they live in their cars, not shelters, and so never make it into the calculations. Nevertheless, their Web site states that a USA Today study estimated that there are 1.6 million people across the US who “used transitional housing or emergency shelters.
Numbers in New York are somewhat more accessible. The New York Coatlition for the Homeless state on their Web site, that the number of homeless New Yorkers is the highest since the Great Depression, with the sharpest rise—60% occurring since 2002.