On my way home tonite, I spent over an hour with this homeless eldery Polish woman, a fixture on Manhattan Ave. for the 16 years I’ve lived in Greenpoint/Brooklyn. I know from a lot of past experience that giving her a few dollars often means taking real time with her. I go to the bodega for her to get food, help her move her bags and luggage down the street or into the subway (a frustrating drawn-out process because she goes nuts if you move faster than her shuffle), and sometimes, like tonite, I let her just talk.
She will go on and on incoherently, and its the same spiel all these years, always peppered by comments about her husband being Jewish and the Catholic Poles all hating her, and stories of being robbed. She never appears to recognize me despite our many interactions, and tonite I told her three times, “yes, I know, I remember you telling me that”. But whenever I try to carry on a conversation by replying, she gets confused, or just uninterested. Sometimes it makes the desire to walk away stronger, but I never do.
Tonite I made sure she drank a lot of water because it was so dangerously hot, and I got her to eat some rice. I also helped her hide her $, which she keeps separate from her pocketbook, promising I’d look for a pink blouse and a size pair 10 shoes tomorrow at her request (she often doesn’t like the selections I make, though, having once turned her nose up at a pocketbook I got for her). When I started to leave, she got very upset when I didn’t give her my number (because I didn’t have a pen), even asking a passer-by if he had one. I felt so bad, but I didn’t want to even try to dig out her pocketbook, find her throwaway phone and type in my digits because I knew she won’t remember to call (I gave it to her once before)…Lots of people walk past, some take pictures…I took a picture of her once, recently actually, but when she told me she didn’t like being photographed, I deleted it immediately so there’s no pics to lillustrate or dramatize this post. And I should’ve asked her first. The idea that people on the street don’t have the dignity or the right to consent is just so wrong.
More importantly, this old lady, batty as she is, should have other options than living in the street, or being institutionalized. Tonite she talked about Woodward, a mental hospital, and I couldn’t tell if she was referring to herself having stayed there or her husband. As mentioned, she’s very difficult to follow, though I try. She does know the difference – when I’m really listening and not, and clearly likes that I try to follow. No doubt she’s endured a lot of patronizing, which upsets me almost as much as the young hipsters – who dominate the hood now – who treat her like the trash she often sits propped up near.
Its easy to convince yourself that because you can’t ultimately change a homeless person’s situation, and they’re everywhere, there’s no point in bothering, you won’t make a difference. Or to console yourself with donations made to orgs that help the homeless, which of course is great to do. I sometimes am one of these people. But when I do stop and take the time, I’m reminded that you can help alleviate the desolation and isolation so many on the street suffer from – in silence – by acknowledging their humanity, and reaching out. I remain in awe of this woman’s ability to survive, and take solace in knowing there are some who take the time to show her the kindness she deserves.