Thoughts by Richard Bleil
The year was 1992. Near the corner of E 86th St and 2nd Ave in New York City, she sat every day, rain or shine, heat or cold. The winter was bitter that year. I was working at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine as a post-doctoral research assistant and walked by her every day. A post-doc is basically one step beyond student, paid less than minimum wage. In a city like New York, it was barely enough to survive, but when I had a few dollars, I tried to help her out.
I can’t say if it’s still true or not, but there were, back then, really two classes of “homeless”. There were “homeless” people making six figures a year. These people were scam artists. They were actually pretty easily identifiable; they were the ones in the subway and places that were warm and outside of the elements. I never gave money to these “beggars”. She, on the other hand, was truly homeless. She suffered through rain, snow, sleet, sub-freezing and hundred degree plus weather.
I would walk to and from work, about twenty blocks (two miles). I didn’t want a car in New York City, and it turns out that I had made the correct decision. Apparently, people paid as much (or more) to park their car in the city than they did in rent. That day, the weather was bitterly cold. She was bundled up in winter clothes and shrouded in a filthy down blanket that looks as if she probably found it in the garbage. I was wearing my winter clothes. As I passed, though, I didn’t see her wearing a hat. So, I gave her the wool cap that I was wearing. As I was taking it off, I asked her if she was wearing gloves as I couldn’t see her hands in the blanket. Before she reached for the cap, she clearly was making motions underneath the blanket as she was removing gloves. She held her bare hands up as if to say, no, no gloves.
My I handed her my hat. Then I took off my skier’s gloves from a trip several years earlier and handed the to her as well. Yes, I know she had gloves, but I don’t know how warm they were. But, even if they were warmer than mine, she could still sell my gloves at a pawn shop.
Yes, I let myself be “conned”.
I’ve been told not to give money to the homeless because they will just spend it on booze. Maybe. But who am I to tell them that they can’t? Or shouldn’t? I don’t know the path that led her to the streets, I don’t know her struggles. If she needs alcohol to escape her reality of homelessness, well, that’s her call. I appreciate people who will buy food for the homeless, but I certainly don’t appreciate when I’m criticized for giving money. My gloves, my money; it’s all gifts from my heart, whether I can afford it or not.
Letting yourself be conned is not always a bad thing. I don’t know why she wasn’t just honest, but whatever the situation was, I didn’t mind. I know she had needs, and I wanted to help.
When I arrived in the city, I had at least three different people tell me that I wouldn’t notice the homeless after a few days, but I never wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t see them. I saw the compressed cardboard in doorways where somebody had been sleeping. I listened to the man explain how raw potatoes are actually better than cooked to justify that he couldn’t cook them.
People have struggles, and they deal with them in different ways. I know that I do and have had a hard time accepting the charity of my friends who have made sure that I have shelter and food. I hope that I offer, as a guest, something in return, maybe companionship, maybe just appreciation. It feels good to help people out, but it also feels awkward to accept help. This has been a very difficult lesson to me. This woman apparently felt awkward at showing the resources she actually had. Maybe she’d been robbed by somebody asking a similar question, maybe she was ashamed to admit that she did have gloves but wanted to sell mine. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I let myself be conned, but because I knew what was happening, was I really conned? Or was I helping out while protecting her dignity?