Meditations in Chinatown
New York City is a rough place for the down and out. In an ATM vestibule one night–a bitterly cold, windswept winter night–I noticed a man crouched in the corner. He wasn’t sitting, exactly. He was crouched, as if he might spring up at any moment should someone discover him. He rested his head in his arms, eyes closed. He wasn’t sleeping, exactly. He was there and not there, as if he was trying to disappear, to negate his own existence, to take up so little of the world that no one could possibly object to his presence.
His clothes were old and threadbare. His white sneakers were filthy.
I had some leftovers from the dinner I’d just eaten, and after getting my money, I set the bag next to him. He immediately looked up and shook his head, rejecting the offer. His face gave me the feeling I had somehow insulted him, or at least that I was asking him to break some oath he had taken that I could never understand.
I picked up the bag and walked toward the door opposite of where I had come in. On the way, something strange happened. As if by magic, a crouching woman appeared. She was wedged next to a garbage can in the far corner of the vestibule. Her clothes were of a modern style and looked clean. She had a shiny, pink suitcase that looked new. Like the filthy man, she crouched with her head in her arms. And yet, I’m sure they weren’t together. She seemed further removed. She was a ghost, silent as the moonlight.
I couldn’t imagine who she was or what kind of trouble led her there. Worst of all, I knew I couldn’t help her. We might as well have been on different planets.
I stepped back into the shivering night, haunted. She haunts me still. She represents some failure I only half understand, some glitch in humanity, some darkness not even God can penetrate.