Waking up and hearing

It’s silent now, even though I’ve been keeping my ears peeled for it, but the first thing I noticed when I came into the living room and sat down was a bird chirping.

It was probably a sparrow, which I consider so commonplace, yet in the Bible—at least in some English translations—this diminutive brown bird is referred to by name by Jesus himself.  The peacock boasts no such attention.

But it’s quiet now, except for the typing of my keyboard.  The bird(s)—for there are blue jays, robins, an occasional red-tailed hawk to our delight, and towhees in our courtyard—have settled into their Saturday morning activities, and so have I.  Soon, our middle son will come down (or, rather, I will rouse him and then he will come down), and he will shuffle to the couch, fall/roll onto it, and grab a throw-blanket from the headrest and pull it over him like a collapsed tent, sealing himself off from me and everything around him.

(The bird is back. It sounds like a bluejay, but not its standard “jeer,” as birders might refer to the call.)

My son—all three sons, really—come into the living room like I used to come into the kitchen in the mornings growing up.  They never come into a quiet room, where sounds outside the room are discernible.  Someone is always there first.  And even if they did—even as I did then—they are thinking about (1) continuing their sleep, and/or (2) what’s for breakfast.  Either fatigue or hunger guides them.  Granted, before I heard the bluejay and before I even tried to, my first step was to turn on the kitchen light, drop a Starbucks pod into the Keurig coffee pot (coffee “maker”?…they are not really “pots” anymore), and only then take my Steaming Cup of Morning over to the side-table by my Daddy chair, sit down, and…be open.

The coffee is my throw-blanket, though its effect is much briefer on my senses that its counterpart’s on my son’s.

Last night I returned from a work trip to Florida, where I woke up on three mornings overlooking the beach and ocean.  My mornings, with coffee at my side of course, were accompanied by the sound of waves—each wave absolutely different, like snowflakes, or humans—yet all seeming the same and all constituting a whole.  The waves were a familiar sound to me, embedded in my waking hours during summers on Fire Island from 1965 to 2002.

I wonder this morning how many New Yorkers are waking up and hearing—at first—the sounds of CNN Headline News, or of yelling in the next room or adjacent apartment, or of a bottle clinking on the sidewalk outside their bedroom window, or of a subway rushing downtown under the metal grate on which they are trying to sleep.



The doorman stood about ten feet off the corner of 85th and West End, a few steps from his post.  He lit a half-finished cigarette.  The blue-grey smoke was like chiffon against his cocoa skin.  His baggy pants were navy blue with double-yellow stripes down the sides.




Staring at the teetering 1-year-old girl, who wore a purple, blue and green sundress, the beige and black-faced pug stood still with bug-eyes.  The girl squealed, pointing at her playmate.  The dog’s owner, the girl’s parents, and two other adults, including a writer, watched.




He slept in an armchair in Starbucks at 87th and Broadway.  Next to his chair were two brown shopping bags wrinkled from use and containing other wrinkled plastic bags, like layers of onion with no center.  His orange and white ball cap hid a face buried in his chest.  His soiled grey pants were rolled up on the outside above black socks and black work sneakers.  Wearing a dark blue rain-resistant jacket, he seemed not to care that it is 80 degrees outside today.


Labor Day.

Looking through the mirror

In the mornings after I’ve dropped off the boys at school, as I’m crossing Broadway and 84th – my mind and iPod set to Destination Subway and the downtown #1 train toward work – he’s sitting there on a bench in the median of the avenue, facing south, downtown:  A man, sitting within a large amount of unstable flesh as if he’d been poured into a 7-foot oval cake pan and left uncooked.


His skin is dark brown; his eyes are disarmingly sharp as they spot me looking back at him.  Like an oversized Ewok from the last Star Wars movie, those eyes piercing.  And somewhat innocent, but ready to fight.  Brown and grey raggy clothes are draped over his round shoulders and hang down the front of his body like sheets over furniture to be kept free of dust during the off-season when the family’s away.  An unlit cigar butt projects from his mouth.  It looks the same length today as yesterday.  There are hundreds, it seems, used paper matches on the hexagonal concrete tile walk in front of him and around him.  I’m not sure if they’re his or not.  I wonder why they don’t get swept up.  His presence is not intrusive but neither is it easily dismissed.  He causes me to think about him.


I wonder what it’s like to be him.


In our inane way of distributing humanity into different groups, let me continue the madness by saying there are really three groups of suffering people.  First there are people who suffer but whose lives continue on relatively unscathed.  They either have enough money, or enough of a support system, that they can carry on their lives with little to no interruption in their schedules or habits or even to an extent their dreams, and their suffering – whether self-imposed or not – goes largely unnoticed, because it largely does not intrude on anyone else.  This is the vast majority of suffering people.  Some of them medicate their suffering with a substance, and their friends and family enable them, and their suffering is seen as almost romantic.  This group ranges from the eccentric billionaire child to the starving artist in New York City.


Second there are people whose suffering is more visible and whose support network is tenuous and often ad hoc.  These people are in and out of AA rooms and in- and out-patient rehab centers.  They have friends, but they are often friends who, too, are in and out of treatment facilities and programs.  They have family who are not always close, and who are not always caring about their condition.  Sometimes they’re there for them, sometimes not.  These people are trying to live and struggling.  They sometimes medicate their suffering with a substance, but it is seen as tragic.  This group is like the 19-year-old meth head I met at AA in Morrow, Georgia, who was in and out of his parents’ home and rehab and kept coming in and out of our meetings.  I never knew what happened to him.


Then you have people like this man who I see.  I would not be surprised to learn that the only people who know his name are nuns who operate soup kitchens and nurses who provide emergency care at clinics.  These people are off the grid; they have no system.  Their lives cannot be calibrated using the same scales of relationship and citizenship as the other two groups can.  They sometimes medicate with substance and it is seen as hopeless.  It almost seems as if there is no suffering left to medicate, only sheer existence, and their substance is part of that existence.


Yet, he seems undaunted.


He is not like the man I see when I get off the subway many evenings.  This second man, standing in front of a Gap store on 86th and Broadway, alternates between shouting and laughing hysterically at the concrete.  His mind is gone.  His name may be known by nuns and nurses, but he doesn’t know that they know his name.  Nor does he care.


My man in the median seems to care.  Seems to know something about life and have an opinion.  He watches me.  Follows me with his Ewok eyes as I continue across Broadway, turning up the volume on Dierks Bentley.


One day I will talk to him.  I will learn his name.


I don’t know which day.



photo:  tourlesnomssontdeja


A sincere smile

I used to see Anthony standing along the wall of the steep pathway leading from the #6 train down to the #7 platform. He was on crutches and was missing his right leg, his pants folded back on that side. Had an old black Bible in one hand and was always fingering a rosary with the other. He must have been about 35 or so. Never asked for money, but many of us gave it to him because of his sincere smile.

I would take the #6 from 96th street down to Grand Central Station and then transfer to the #7 to get across town to Times Square, which was two blocks from where I worked. It was easier than the shuttle to my way of thinking.

So I would sort of gallop-walk down that ramp, and most mornings I’d see Anthony.

He always smiled and said, Good morning, brother! I would shake his hand though it was dirty and cigarette stained, and I felt guilty afterwards because I wanted to wash up.


At first, I felt like a real slimebag.

A man approached me as I drove up to the curb at Starbucks and asked me to roll down my window.

“I’m out of gas. I’m so humiliated to ask, but can you help me with a couple dollars.”

I’m sorry, was my reply.

I always wonder about these exchanges. I didn’t trust the dude from moment one. He had a vibe that said “scam” all over it. I parked and walked into Starbucks. This guy preceded me and without looking back, held the door open. I paused, then entered and sheepishly said “thanks.”

“Oh,” he said, noticing it was me, “I didn’t actually mean to … help you.”

So now I feel like total sh#@. You gotta understand, I normally take great pleasure in giving money away. My wife’s a saver; I’m a giver. We make a good balance sheet. But now I’ve had the door held open by a guy who I turned down because he had Scam Face on, and he rubs my face in it. Stupidly, because I feel guilty, I remain silent. I repeat in my mind good comebacks, something about my having grown up in New York and getting taken one too many times. Fed up with it.

I order my coffee with him standing less than five feet away. Great. A coffee that would practically get him a gallon of gas, if he indeed needs it.

I sit down and he is milling around the place, looking at CDs, coffee mugs. Then I see him start to walk out, a wad of bills in his hand – where did this come from?! – backed by a bill that was at least a ten if not a twenty. He gets into a car on the passenger side, driven by a young guy, baseball cap on, smoking a cigarette, and they drive off.

I am enjoying my $1.84 coffee, thank you very much.


Did I tell you that I was homeless for an afternoon?

Not really, mind you.

It was during my senior year of college and I had a rented room in a house with 13 other undergrad and graduate students, but for a sociology experiment I dressed as a homeless man and went out on to Hillsborough Street in Raleigh across from the campus of North Carolina State University to spend a few hours peddling and learning how people dealt with being asked for money. (Today, I am a professional fundraiser, and I can tell you that the job is much the same in many ways, but now I smell better and get to have at least one 0.001-ounce bag of pretzels per flight.) Continue reading

through other eyes

The young man climbed the sticky steps of the Manhattan subway station exiting at 86th Street and Lexington.Recent rain on a summer day had dried too quickly and not cleaned the concrete of half-dried soda, food, spit and slime, and the young man stepped with his head down, moving with the Sunday morning crowd, one of many, not a separate individual so much as a piece of a whole.

“Twenty-five cents for a meal!” shouted a voice at the top of the stairs where the exterior light met the dank of the subway tunnel. The voice had a Deep South accent, gravelly, older, black. Directed at everyone: “Ah fought in the wah faw yuh!” Continue reading