NYC Week Four: Seeing the homeless

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

I wanted to give him my peanut butter sandwich.

Him. The man standing directly in front of me on the 6 train, dirt under his fingernails, clothes faded and filthy.

I wanted to give him my peanut butter sandwich, made with the last scrapings from the jar, stuffed in a ziplock, stuffed in a backpack with carrot sticks, an apple, my mostly empty wallet, and my $350 refurbished MacBook.

Only a cart of his belongings and entirely different goals of existence separated us. My goals: follow God, write stories. His: stay alive.

I wanted to give him my peanut butter sandwich, but then I thought it through:

It’s almost my stop. The sandwich will barely hold me over ’til supper. I’ll get so hungry on the ride home, I’ll get shaky. He’s reading that free newspaper very intently.

He got off the train before I did. I kept my sandwich and ate it for lunch, the cold, dry peanut butter making me feel cold and dry for keeping it.

Homelessness is a fact of life in New York City. As of January 2013, the estimated number of homeless New Yorkers was 64,060 — roughly 10 percent of the national tally and a 13 percent increase from 2012

When I moved here, I knew I would see homeless people on a regular basis. I knew there would be dirty, sad, sometimes scary people wandering the streets because they had no place to go. But I was not prepared for how merely seeing these people would affect me. (I credit it to the work of a friend of mine on a documentary about a man who is willfully homeless in order to help the Indianapolis homeless population.)

Get up at six a.m. on a Saturday. Catch the bus to the train station and climb aboard. Switch in Manhattan to a Brooklyn Bridge-bound 6 train. Scan for a seat and notice someone wrapped in a blanket, laying on a bench at one end of the car, their cart of belongings — one vibrantly-colored hat among them — on the floor in front. Notice a puddle on the seat next to the woman you stand in front of. There’s a half-soaked napkin in the puddle. Urine? Quite possibly.

On a different day, on a different train. Another early morning. Quietly, take a seat with space between you and others, if possible. Scan those around you, and settle in for the ride. Watch a dirt-ridden man pass through the aisle. Smell the stench he leaves behind, a sharp smell, almost like something dying. Wait for the cologne-ridden to board and overpower the scent.

Walk a street. Or maybe just a block or two. Notice the scaffolding that seems to have a permanent presence in front of the grand old buildings that are — like most cities and, if we’re honest, people — more about appearances than genuine, inside-out authenticity. Quick, look down. Before you trip over the body, covered head to toe with a blanket thinner than the comforter on your bed. Remember how you checked the temperature this morning and bundled up: sweater, coat, scarf, hat, gloves. Twenty-two degrees. Your cheeks are red from the wind. Your eyes are burning. Imagine sleeping outside. On concrete.

I’m a Christian. I am convinced God has a purpose for every person on this planet and that, because He loves them, He is actively working in each person’s life, creating a story unique to them that will eventually come to the happiest ending if they allow Him work in their hearts. I believe that any life has potential to be beautiful, no matter where the starting point or what happens along the way. He turns ashes into beauty, coal into diamonds, and grime into gold, so any hideous parts of life, God can make beautiful.

This means not that I look at a homeless person and think, They just need to wait on God’s timing. He will provide, but that I have a genuine interest in the welfare of others and the specific narrative they’re living out.

When I see a homeless person, I want to help them in some way. But I’m held back by fear — sometimes for legitimate reasons; other times, as in the case of the newspaper-reading-man-with-a-cart, for no reason other than the idea of an empty stomach for an afternoon.

Flatiron District

Bringing you up-to-date:

Last week, I wrote, asking you for suggestions of writing topics and accountability in pursuing them. It’s a good thing I was the only one to respond to my request for topic and deadline suggestions, because this week ended up being way crazier than I had anticipated — but crazy in a good way.

Sunday: Church. It’s practically a full-time job — show up at 8:30 or 9, don’t leave until 2 or later. Afterward, I handed a resume in to a coffee shop in the Queens Center Mall and got groceries with my housemate at a nearby Aldi (my all-time favorite grocery store).

Monday: Internship. I honestly don’t remember much about this day. It feels like forever ago. I think this was the day I made Pennsylvania Pot Pie, but that might have been Tuesday.

Tuesday: Two in-person job interviews with eateries in the Flatiron District. When I got home, I received a phone call from a third place in the same area and was interviewed on-the-spot. All three bumped me to the next round of the hiring process.


Wednesday: During my intern hours, my editor and I met with three CUNY journalism graduate students whom we’ll be collaborating with on our arson project. I explained my research findings and suggested several directions they could take their own project.

Thursday: Met a Taylor grad, who works in the publishing industry, for lunch. On the train back, I missed a couple interesting writing opportunities.

Facebook Post

Friday: In the evening, I made chocolate chip cookies with Krystle, but she wanted to cut the butter in the recipe so they didn’t come out perfectly. In the morning, I went into Manhattan for a four-hour paid job trial at one of the eateries I interviewed for on Tuesday. They asked me to come back Saturday to learn how to host, so . . .

Saturday: I worked nine to a little after four, hosting a restaurant for the first time in my life. I’m on the schedule for next week at this place, but I’m not officially hired, so I’m not naming names, yet. =) When I got back to the house, I ate dinner and then made muffins (with Danny’s recipe) with Lili. Three kinds: strawberry, apple and — my specialty — lemon poppy. On the subway ride back, I saw this ad (shout-out to my home region):


So I didn’t meet any writing goals this past week, but I’m a big step closer to accomplishing another: getting a job. This week’s a test round with one place, so next week, I’ll update you on my employment status.

Published by meredithsell

Freelance writer and editor. Nerding out over health & fitness, women's history, and untold stories.

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