One of the things I’d like to do this year is interact more with New York. It’s so easy to put your headphones on and walk around in a mental haze of music, podcasts and daydreams. This city can be a lonely place when you’re surrounded by humanity and your conversational engagements are rare and fleeting.
That’s how I met George today. I’ve seen him around for much of the past year that we lived in Cobble Hill, but I’ve only spoken with him once. A few months ago he tried to sell me some incense on the street and I told him I’d definitely buy a few packs when I had some cash on me. But when I showed up on his usual block with my money the next day, he was nowhere to be found.
Then I saw him today when I went back to the old apartment to get a couple things we’d left behind. I had a tiny Deva green change purse I bought Molly years ago, filled with coins. I left our new place with it today, with the intention of handing out quarters to any panhandlers I might encounter. Avoiding eye contact or apologizing for not having any spare change—when most of the time I probably did—has left me feeling guilty for not doing more to help out people who haven’t been as lucky as me.
So I was happy to see George again, hawking his incense on Smith Street, at the Bergen Street stop off the F & G trains across the street from Dunkin Donuts. I reached into the purse and pulled out a half-dozen coins, one of which seemed to be a foreign currency. I took it back from his calloused hand and apologized for handing George an unusable coin from god knows what country.
“That’s all right,” George whistled through a mouth nearly devoid of teeth. “I’ll still take it.”
We both stood there looking closer at the coin. Was this a long forgotten Euro leftover from our walk across Spain in 2013? Then I noticed the name “James Polk” written on one side and my American public school education told me this was a U.S. coin.
“Look at that,” I told George, excited to deliver him some good news. “This thing’s actually a dollar.”
I patted him on the shoulder, then returned the gold coin into his chalky hands. “It’s your lucky day!”
I soon learned that George not only sold incense on the streets of Brooklyn to make food money—his rent was paid for by the government, he told me—but he was also from Texas.
“Texas?! I moved here from Texas just over a year ago!”
“Yeah? Where from?”
“We moved from Austin. Where are you from?”
“I grew up in San Antonio,” George told me. “You know, the River Walk and…”
“Oh, yeah, I know the River Walk. The Spurs. You’re right down the road from Austin.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” George said with a big, gummy smile. All his bottom teeth were missing. The only thing left down there were tiny dark nubs of what may have been teeth in another lifetime.
Before I headed off, I asked George if I could take his picture and he happily obliged. For some reason he decided to flash his VA identification card in the photo. Thanks, George. Next time our paths cross, I hope we can talk longer.
Homelessness and panhandling are so rampant in New York City that the natives at times seem immune to it all. I don’t want to be immune to it. I don’t want to ignore it. I want to help. Even if it just means handing over a few coins and having a conversation with a man who’s working the streets to pay for his next meal. It doesn’t take much to help make these people feel a little less invisible and alone in a city of 10 million people.
And it makes me feel less alone doing it.