One Glove, One Dollar
It was a morning of deep cold the day I was to meet Cindy who would be driving us back east to Springs. Anticipating how early in the day the Hamptons villages would close down in December, I’d chosen to spend part of each week in Manhattan throughout the short wintry days. On the curving East Hampton roads, impenetrably dark and populated by raccoons, deer and turkeys, it already seemed like midnight at 5 pm, in stark contrast with my other home on East 86th St. near the Hampton Jitney stop, a Fairway, several Chase banks, and a 24 hour Gristedes where essentials such as cream for coffee can be purchased at midnight and alert human beings walk the lit streets while the roads of the Hamptons remain so black that I imagined that streetlamps must certainly be casting artificial darkness upon them. Drive into Northwest Woods in mid-December if you are doubtful. Bring a flashlight.
The bright, abundantly populated night – time streets of Manhattan aren’t all cheer however. There are the homeless bundled in heaps of soiled sleeping bags, duct- taped shoes with flapping soles, and scrunched-up newspapers pillowing their heads as they slumber on sidewalks beneath scaffolding. Victoria’s Secret on the Upper West Side is a favorite sleeping area, as are cathedral steps. American Apparel seems a favorite location for a young man with a guitar. I am aware that there are homeless people in the Hamptons, but I know this only because some of my friends volunteer to help, otherwise the homeless here are invisible.
I spend most of my time in Manhattan walking, and became interested in talking with the street people. Often, on a day so frigid I could hardly bear being in the street even wrapped in the warmest clothes, the question I wanted to ask each of them would form itself in my mind as, “Why have you not killed yourself?” But of course I had to rephrase. So my basic query, as I offered a dollar, would be, “What keeps you going?” The young man with the guitar outside American Apparel said, “Music.”
I knelt to speak with the beautiful young girl who often sat on the corner of 86th St. and 3rd Avenue with a cardboard sign informing passers by that she needed $40 for a space at a hostel for the night. She’d been fired from her job at Barnes & Noble in Philadelphia, she told me, when she’d moved out of her house because her father had been abusing her. She’d spent $50 for a bus ticket to Manhattan since New York City had better programs for the homeless.
One of the street people I spoke with said he’d tried shelters but that there’d been a stabbing in the shower there, and his wallet had been stolen, therefore he was without ID and now had no access to agencies serving the homeless with such opportunities as job training and placement.
I’d passed homeless people so often that I’d organized my messenger bag so that there were single dollar bills easily accessible to offer a shivering street person.
That morning walking to the corner designated for Cindy to pick me up, I had on leather gloves lined in cashmere that I’d bought at The Retreat Thrift Shop and even so, my fingers ached with the cold so badly I was too uncomfortable to take off one of the gloves to slide a single dollar out of the bag’s outside compartment. I didn’t give the young girl on 86th St. my usual offering. I was too cold to take off one glove. She meanwhile was sitting hunched in a hoodie and a summery cotton skirt, wearing thin tights and sneakers.
I was wearing cozy suede boots with pile linings bought at the Bass Outlet in Amagansett Square, a cashmere hat and scarf from The Retreat Thrift Shop, an insulated camisole, a long-sleeved fleece t- shirt from a surf shop in Montauk, a three- ply cashmere turtleneck sweater, and a black wool Calvin Klein coat from the LVIS. Did I mention the leg warmers I had on too?
I’m certain it took less than three seconds to walk past the shivering girl. This few seconds of negligence triggered a rush of shame that haunts me still, the shame of not taking off one glove to reach for one dollar pursued me for the rest of the day and pursues me even now.
I waited, hunched and recoiling from the wind, for my friend’s arrival in her car, my fingers aching from the deep penetrating cold. Cindy pulled to the curb in her silver Lexus and drove us across what is now called the RFK Bridge, after a while taking the exit ramp for a shopping stop at Costco.
We rolled a big cart into the gigantic space where my friend likes to have a respite from the drive and also stock up for her weekend. Here Q tips in packages almost the size of Hondas are as available as boxes of 4000 bandaids. (Cindy’s mom lived to be 103 so longevity is not an issue for my friend. I would never buy that many bandages at one time. Even though I am afflicted by cuts and scratches as often as other people, I don’t expect to live long enough to use all those bandages!)
I kept thinking of the girl on the corner of 86th St., how Q- tips and bandaids were luxuries, how both my friend and I had two dwellings each yet we had the habit of complaining about matters so ridiculously minor that as we passed a woman handing out samples of salsa on corn chips, my shame intensified. The girl on the corner didn’t have access to samples of salsa on crunchy tortilla chips, not even one chip. We complained that we’d eaten too many and felt fat. The girl on 86th St. had no food and we were buying calorie- free Snapple.
I realize as I write this that I am reporting about my own emotional discomfort as though my shame is more painful than that of a human being without even one home. Goes to show how being this “me-centric” can indeed cause needless misery. My friend and I definitely suffered from the condition of “affluenza” that afflicts so many east enders. And it’s contagious. The more one complains about the gardener not coming on the day promised, or the sofa from Bloomingdale’s warehouse being delivered late, the more one notices what else is missing. The expensive glasses are all half empty of expensive designer water. We complain about being too fat for our designer clothes while there are people without food around the corner from where our OTHER homes are.
We stocked Cindy’s trunk with the huge bags of green beans and frozen shrimp, the gigantic carton of laundry detergent, 1,000 M & M’s, and the wedge of Jarlsberg cheese the size of a poodle. The quantities were cloying. I was still thinking of the girl on the corner and how few people who passed her ever made eye contact with her, how most of us tend to speed our steps or look at the time on watches or phones when passing the street people. I was thinking of how easy it is for my mind to collapse into patterned streams of thought about my own distresses, so laughably inconsequential compared to the discomforts of individuals freezing on Manhattan sidewalks for entire days so cold that even a walk of a few blocks in warm clothes feels unbearable.
As I slipped on my gloves in readiness for helping Cindy carry her purchases into her warm house, I was queasy with the shame not so much of having two dwellings as with the perspective so easily lost when one is physically comfortable. The heart’s empathic potential flattens when there are no unmet needs. The floors of Cindy’s house had just been refinished. They gleamed. There was that complicated fragrance of a house having been freshly cleaned, a fragrance the girl on the corner would have to wait a long time to experience, if ever she did again.
I still feel the shame. Writing this now, I still remember that day of biting cold, one of many such days last winter. I could have removed ONE GLOVE for only a few seconds in order to reach for that one dollar. The next time I pass the girl on that corner, or anyone living on any corner, I will have more presence of mind. I will find the homeless people in the Hamptons and ask them how they get through the day, what they do with their minds when they compare their lives to those of the rest of us here, while my own heart grieves for their plight.