The main purpose of this post is to serve as a medium for me to reflect on my experience with Jeffrey, a homeless man I met on a cold January evening in Times Square. I’m not sure if my interaction is anything I would necessarily consider positive, though perhaps a reader or two might have a similar experience that would help provide some clarity to these issues…
We passed on the sidewalk near the center of Times Square. I was heading to Penn Station to catch a train. He was shuffling in a somewhat contorted manner and carrying a soft drink cup with some change in it which he was using to solicit strangers. He also happened to be wearing a t-shirt in 25 degree weather. Looking down I also discovered that he was barefoot despite the fact that it had been snowing all day. Nevertheless, because I was nervous about catching my train, or so I reasoned to myself, I kept walking.
After traveling about a block I decided, whether out of guilt or curiosity, to look back hoping that perhaps someone after me had stopped to offer help (both the man’s condition as well as my feelings of responsibility).
But there he was, standing partially contorted in his t-shirt and sweatpants near the edge of the curb holding his cup out. Seeing a police car nearby I thought I might at least inquire about the city’s protocol regarding barefoot mentally handicapped people. Hoping they might take a hint, I asked the officer in the vehicle if there was a nearby shelter I could connect this person to. He responded that there was one around the block, but that the gentleman would have to “want” to be admitted, I could not force him. I pretty much took that to mean “good luck,” so, mustering up what little extroversion I had, I approached the man and asked him if I could help him at least find a shelter.
The following is an overview of our exchange, as best as I can remember it:
me: Aren’t you cold, can I help you find a shelter?
Jeffrey: (with what sounded like an air of hope in his voice): Are you a worker at a shelter?
me: No, I’m just a friend. (At this point I realized that “friend” was actually a feigned attempt to project the opposite of who I really was.)
Jeffrey: thanks, I’m just fine, I’m just trying to get these people to give me some, a little money, ya know, just some money.
me: You sure you’re not cold?
Jeffrey: No, I’m just fine, but I am pretty hungry, you could get me a Quarter Pounder? If that’s not too much? If it’s not too much money, I don’t like eating from the street vendors. They don’t wash their hands.
me: (internally disturbed by the thought of stepping into McDonalds) how about something from somewhere else?
Jeffrey: No I’d really like a Quarter Pounder, that would be fine.
me: Can I help you find some shoes?
Jeffrey: Oh I think a couple said they were going to find me some shoes, I don’t know where they went, but I think they’ll come back.
me: Ok, well, where’s a McDonalds?
Jeffrey: There’s one up the street, I’ll be here when you get back. I’ve got’s to try and get me some more money
(5 minutes later I return from McDonalds with a Quarter Pounder)
me: hey, here you go.
Jeffrey: Oh thanks man, that’s great, thanks.
me: is there anything else I can help you with.
Jeffrey: no man,that’s good.
me: well, what’s your name.
Jeffrey: thank you, my name’s Jeffrey, what’s yours.
me: I’m Scott.
Jeffrey: well thanks man.
me: all right.
With the fear of missing my train still on my mind I left Jeffrey there with his newly acquired McDonalds Quarter Pounder, still shoeless, still in his dirty t-shirt. As I walked away I looked up to see the multitude of glittering billboards hawking the latest fashion, newest cars, mindless entertainment,and must-have electronic accessories, which now seemed to serve is huge distractions from the real world I had just seen. I looked around at all the other people in Times Square, each of whom seemed to be in their own little hurry just like me, and thus unimpressed at the sight of Jeffery standing there in his bare feet. I kept walking hoping not to draw attention to the fact that I had begun crying. Quickening my pace I felt a sense of resistance coming from my back pocket and realized it was the article I had been reading on the train ride into the city, the title: “Revelation’s Visionary Challenge to Ordinary Empire.”
There are two unusual and seemingly disconnected things that, as of this writing, stand out most clearly about Jeffrey.
The first were his feet. They were quite large (I’m guessing a size 13) and, surprisingly, didn’t seem to be all that dirty given that he was walking around in the slush. The one exception being his toe nails, most of which were almost entirely black.
The second was his smile. He had a very warm smile which immediately reminded me of the smile I get from my 9 month old daughter when I come home from work. I can’t really explain that connection other than perhaps their smiles share a similar simplicity.
A part of me wonders why, after growing up as a dedicated member in the life of the church, and having reading volumes of ethical/theological literature, I didn’t know quite what to do, or as Hauerwas might say “who to be,” in my interaction with Jeffrey.
Another part of me thinks I knew exactly what to do but was too afraid/intimidated/selfish/complacent, to follow through with it…
This post is dedicated to my friend Dan Davidson for first introducing me to the idea of “Improvisation.”