With Dignity To Leave

by Coralie Kwok in New York City

New York City, East Village, 2016: Coralie Kwok

NEW YORK CITY, May 22nd, 2017

Dear Mike,

On this grey and rainy day, I wonder where you are and what you are doing. Have you found shelter? Are you even… alive?

Our encounter last month struck a maternal chord I didn’t even know I had.

That Saturday afternoon, as I was walking home from Chinatown, I passed by you at the corner of Houston and Bowery. Rather, I walked by you, as we New Yorkers usually do. Homeless people are everywhere in this city, we’ve become accustomed to seeing them. Sometimes, on a good day, one may throw some pennies or a couple of dollars. And then, life goes on.

It was a particularly hot late April Saturday. My eyes briefly glanced at your cardboard asking for help. I was carrying two heavy bags of fresh groceries and needed to get home quickly. Everyone was minding their own business, myself included and you were left there, alone. I decided to walk back to you. Bowing down to be at eye level, I asked you if you were okay. You answered you needed help and thanked me for acknowledging you. You’d been sitting since the morning and no one had stopped.

We chatted for about 5 minutes. You were getting dehydrated. I got you a bottle of water, some cut fruit and a couple of apples from Whole Foods. That very Whole Foods where you were sitting at the corner of, under the premature summer sun.

I needed to put my groceries in the fridge so I told you I’d come back as I wanted to help you somehow. I couldn’t offer you shelter, but I hoped to do a little more than usual.

When I apologized to you that I couldn’t do much, you brushed it off saying, “Thank you for treating me like a human being.” Indifference breaks. I told you I would return as soon as possible, in about half an hour. You said you’d be there. I added, “Let’s chat when I am back, grab a meal.” I wanted to know your story. Where you came from, what had happened. How your belongings got stolen at the men’s shelter. I don’t know whether that was too much.

As I walked back home, I thought about all the possibilities. What would be most helpful to you? A gift card from Starbucks? Walgreens? Cash? There was only so much I could offer. Finances are tight in the city.

On my way back to you, I thought I might as well get you some food. But, what food would you like? Or dislike? Did you like chicken? Or did you prefer beef? What if you were a vegetarian? I picked up a chicken bowl with rice and beans at Chipotle, and walked promptly towards Bowery, feeling equally expectant and anxious about what would come next. The bowl was still warm.

You weren’t there anymore.

Within these thirty minutes, you didn’t stay as you said you would. I walked around the block. You were nowhere to be found.

I felt really silly. Did I overthink this? Did my willingness to go beyond the couple of dollars scare you? Did you feel ashamed? Or did it simply get too hot and you had to change spots?

Why did you leave? I don’t think I’d even be able to recognize you. Mike, I’m sorry I had to go home and couldn’t help you more.

It was just water and fruit, but I hope it gave you enough strength to make it through that day. ☗

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