I have walked by the man dozens of times, if not more. He is there every morning, tucked in the corner of the stairs, away from the crowd, shielded from the wind and the weather that blows in. He watches the people running to the train, running from the train, and he asks for nothing. There is no cardboard sign asking for work or for food, though it is clear he has neither. He rests on a blanket, tattered and worn, wool I believe-military issue perhaps, and some days his head is propped up on a backpack. I assume it is filled with remnants of his past life, things he could hold on to, things that give him hope, but who knows. I suppose it could be filled with books, or tools, heck, even a gun or knife.
I have never looked him in the eye. I am not sure why, maybe out of embarrassment? Shame? But whose, his or mine? His, I think. I don’t want to embarrass him, give him that pitying smile that I am sure he has seen dozens of times. I don’t want to make him feel worse about his situation than I am sure he already does. My chest tightens and I know that is a half-truth. I am the one embarrassed. I am ashamed that I offer him nothing day after day. I am embarrassed that I do not stop and share my leftovers, bring him a book to read or a pillow. Why don’t I? Am I not a good person? Is he not a good person? It shouldn’t matter, should it? He is living here, in this hole and I am not. That should be enough of a reason.
I shake my head at the thoughts. No, he is responsible for his own life, his own mistakes, and he has chosen this life. He has chosen to not get help, to stay down, to live here and no pillow or $2 coffee will change that. I have nothing to be ashamed of, or feel sorry about. He is probably a criminal, a thief or a drug addict. Or all of the above and I cannot fix that. I am sure many have tried.
Yesterday on the way home I looked at him. Really looked at him, and he looked back. I did not smile, but I nodded. I acknowledged him. He looked dazed and lost. I am not sure he really saw me, or saw through me. His eyes were the most beautiful blue I have ever seen and they seemed so dismally out of place. His face was filthy and overgrown with a beard and mustache that had not seen a trim in months (or years, who knows how fast these things grow) and his eyes just did not seem to belong there. I expected to see a dark and menacing glare, not that. Not those eyes. He sort of smiled but I am not sure it was even at me; it was hard to tell with so many people walking by. It was the beginning of a smile and then it was gone, like he remembered where he was-on the floor of the station and not on the barstool beside me uptown. For a moment my breath caught, and then it was gone and I was on the stairs and in the taxi.
He has not been there all week now. I noticed on Wednesday, that he has not been there, and he still hasn’t come back. The weather has gotten colder, so I suppose he could have moved on. To a shelter I suppose. Isn’t that what they do? When the first cold snap comes in they all move to shelters to get warm, eat a hot meal. I am sure that is where he is. His things are gone too, he wouldn’t have left those behind. I feel relieved, that he is off the streets, even if just for a week or two. Maybe he will get cleaned up, and get clean.
I filled my coffee cup again and walked back to the table. My paper is spread out before me-a Sunday ritual. The snow is falling outside and the city is at a virtual standstill. I love days like this. I can savor every article, every sales circular for hours on end. I can read the classifieds-they always intrigue me, the wedding announcements-I love them, so optimistic! I know half of the world is digital, but I love the paper-the smell, the feel of it. It takes me hours to peruse and that is just fine by me. It is Sunday.
The saddest article stopped me in my tracks this morning and I am not sure I have recovered. I am not sure I will. The byline was small, I would have missed it if it had been on a Monday or a Wednesday, but this was Sunday and I miss nothing on a Sunday.
‘Local Man Found-Family Relieved’
I read it with interest-a happy ending-so nice to see! Only it wasn’t. The man had been found, but he had passed away. He had been missing for years-three years it said. His family never gave up. His wife, their daughter, his mother-they all kept looking. The girl was just a baby when he disappeared, she said. He had come home from war after three tours and he was different this time. Wouldn’t hold their daughter. Cried at night. Withdrew. He had seen doctors and got medications, but they only helped temporarily. He wouldn’t talk to her, he was scared to get close to her. Scared he would hurt the baby. And then he was gone. He left no clues, he took very little with him. He did not take his medications.
Now he was found, dead. He had been just a few hours away all that time. But now he was gone forever. He had been beaten the article said, there were no witnesses, and there will be no further investigation. He had been living on the street and things like this happen all the time to vagrants. It struck me as so sad. A crime so clearly committed, and yet, no one would look into it. His poor family, this poor man. Life had dealt him a rough hand, why hadn’t anyone helped him? Why did our system allow this kind of injustice to happen? He was a hero for God’s sake.
I stared at the pictures.
He was so handsome in his uniform. His wife was sweet looking, holding his hand and looking at him like the sun and moon revolved around him. He is beaming. They were happy. She was pregnant and in love with her soldier. He looked so familiar I had to read the article again, but I didn’t recognize his name. Did I work with him, go to school with him? No. Where had I seen him? Maybe the bank, or was it the restaurant near the office? No, that’s not it.
His eyes. I looked at the second picture, the one near the bottom of the article. A tight close up of a tan face, a broad grin, a stubbly chin, and those eyes. And then I knew.
This man had been living in the subway station. This is the man I saw every day for months. This is the man I did not help, did not even smile at, because…because why? Because I thought he chose his path, and chose to stay there. Because I assumed the worst. That he was a criminal or an addict. Because I thought I was better than him. Because of dozens of stupid reasons I made up in my head about who this man was, and how he had gotten there. Because of a dozen reasons I convinced myself I did not have to, did not need to help this one man.
Because I was wrong.