|Illustration by Nino Novellino|
Our Homeless Neighbor
Our Homeless Neighbor
My husband and I live on the Eastside of Manhattan and our apartment windows look out onto Second Avenue. For a few years, there was a homeless man that lived right across the street from our apartment, in full view of our secure and safe high rise, doorman building. The distinctive trait of this individual was his voice. He was a small man, about 5’6” which was a little hard to determine because he would spend much of the day in a squatting position while he yelled at everyone that walked by him, in a voice that was bizarre. It was a low, guttural sound that was so piercing you could hear him a block away. You could not understand what he was saying, most of the time and it had an almost cartoon sound to it. It was truly strange and early in the morning or late at night, when the city is quiet, you could hear him in your apartment.
Every morning as I would open our drapes to greet the morning sun, there he would be squatting and yelling. No one said anything to him. The busy city travelers would just walk by and not even react to his berating, probably because you really could NOT understand a word he was saying.
In 1982 my father passed away and, as with many families, some of his personal items were given to me. Shortly after the funeral, I was helping my mother clean out some of my father’s clothing. She came across some brand new dress socks that she had purchased for my father just before he gotten sick and asked me if my husband, Bill, could use some socks. I, of course, said yes…..who wouldn’t want eight pair of new black dress socks?
A few days later, as Bill was putting these new socks into his drawer, I was standing in our living room looking out the window and my attention went directly to this homeless man across the street. It was cold outside and he was wrapping his feet in newspaper and putting his paper wrapped feet into his worn out shoes. My immediate reaction to seeing this, was sorrow for this poor human being. My heart began to break as I witnessed this desperate attempt of survival against the City’s wintry morning.
My sad spell was broken by Bill announcing to me that he now had too many socks. He couldn’t even fit them all in his drawer. Once my senses were back in my apartment and not on the street, I asked Bill to come to the window and see our poor homeless neighbor. As he looked out the window upon this sight, his sadness turned positive and said, “why don’t we give HIM some of my older socks?” Wow, I thought, what a great idea.
We immediately went into our bedroom and started to pick out any socks that were slightly used. They were still in pretty good shape, but when you have eight new pair, why not part with the old. We filled a plastic grocery bag with Bill’s socks and decided we’d deliver them on our way to work. We began to feel pretty good about doing this, and thought that, maybe my father would think this was a good thing, too.
So, out we went to make our delivery. Our homeless neighbor was in his usual squatting position and he was yelling up a storm. Bill and I stood about 10 feet away from him, trying to figure out how we were going to present our donation to this man. It was as if we were seriously looking at him for the first time and what we saw was a sad, filthy human being. He was so grubby that he was literally encrusted with dirt. It looked like you could chip the dirt off of him. I had never seen anyone in this condition before and we were a bit taken a back.
I remember Bill saying to me……”you give it to him….you’re better at these things then I am.” I just looked at him and said “OK, give me the bag.” As I approached the man, I decided to kind of squat down to where he was so that he could hear me. Since we couldn’t understand him, I was a little concerned about whether or not he could understand me. So, I walked over and got myself into a bending / squatting kind of position and held the plastic bag out like a gift and said, “excuse me, but would you like some socks?” He said something like…..”Huh?” I repeated my offer with….”would you like some socks?” I looked right into his eyes and he looked right back at me with two of the most beautiful piercing blue eyes I had ever seen, and said in his gravely strange cartoon voice….”are they CLEAN? I’m not wearin’ em’ if they aren’t clean.”
I was stunned to say the least, and in my head I myself thinking…..”what did he just say to me?”…...but trying to be a good, understanding and giving neighbor, I remained undaunted, still in my squatting position, probably blinked a few times and replied, “Yes, sir…..they are very clean.”
He took the bag with his unwashed, grungy dirty hand and said “thanks.” I replied, “you’re very welcome.” I stood up and walked away shaking my head. “Wait until I tell you what he asked me,” I said to Bill. I repeated his words to Bill and we both just shook our heads, but as we walked away, we knew that this man, who from that moment on was referred to, by us, as SOCKS, had held on to his own dignity, and isn’t that what everyone wants.