Conversation in Union Square

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Union Square
22 Jun 2006

I might have liked to start by saying that it was a mild and clear evening, the stars visible even in the Manhattan sky, or that it was chilly and I had to zip up my jacket and keep my hand in my pockets, or something of that sort. But in truth I don’t remember what the evening was like. It was just an evening like any other, around the beginning of spring of last year. I do remember I was wearing a light spring jacket—my long Chasidic coat now reserved only for Shul, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, or other such formal functions—and the zipper had gotten stuck on that day, but that’s of course of minor significance.

I had been scheduled to meet up in the city for dinner with a friend, but at the last minute, as I was on my way, he called to say he couldn’t come. I went ahead anyway, and ended up at Strand bookstore, browsing in the basement among the half-priced reviewed books. I probably spent about three hours there, until an employee found me sitting on a stack of books at the far side of the basement by the wall, and reminded me that it was ten-thirty and they were about to close. I wasn’t ready to head back home, so I took a stroll toward Union Square, just a few blocks away. The scrolling marquee at Loews enticed me to go in for a movie. I considered it, but realized I wouldn’t get out till after midnight, which would’ve been a bit too late. It was then that I noticed a black man walking towards me.

“Shalom,” he said with a kind smile.

“Shalom,” I said, wondering about the fact that black men often greet me with that standard greeting from Modern Hebrew, hardly a language used by American Chasidim.

He wore a wool cap over another hat of some kind, his leather jacket buttoned tightly, and, if I remember correctly, he wore a scarf as well. His beard needed a shave, but that was hardly something that I, a Chasid with a full beard, could take issue with. But it did add to the clues that the man was probably homeless and wanted a handout.

“How are you this evening?” he asked hesitantly.

I sized him up as I responded that I was very well, thank you, and thought of how much cash I had in my pocket and whether I was in the right mood today for supporting a homeless man. All the arguments against giving to a homeless person passed through my mind: they just use it to buy drugs and alcohol; receiving handouts discouraged them from finding work; buy them a sandwich instead, just don’t give money; these people are just lazy, and they’re often frauds, and so on and so forth. I remembered all the past experiences with giving on the streets of New York City, from the guy who yelled after me, “I bet that was a penny,” after I dropped a quarter in his cup, to the genuinely talented street performers who had attracted a sizable crowd, and then singled me out while passing around the bucket with the loud announcement, “Oh, here’s a Jewish guy! Come on, you can do better than one buck!”

But for some reason none of those seemed appropriate just then. As the man launched into a story of how if he can just collect fifteen dollars there is this woman who would allow him the use of a room for a month, and how it would be a great help if I could contribute toward that end, I mindlessly removed my wallet and gave him a twenty. I had little patience for the story that he’d obviously rehearsed, and didn’t care for it. I assumed it wasn’t likely to be true anyway. But my reasoning at the moment went that, whether his story was true or not, if he stooped to begging he’s probably worse off than I am. I felt good about myself, feeling not only superior, but also generous and kind.

I had always been interested in people’s stories, and since I had nowhere in particular to be just then, I figured I’d chat him up a bit. After all, I gave him a twenty, so he owed me that much. What I really wanted to know was why he was homeless; what were his circumstances that he had no choice but to beg from strangers.

“Can I ask you a question, sir?” I asked. “Do you have a job?”

I didn’t mean to sound preachy or patronizing, but I really wanted to know why an able bodied man such as he was couldn’t find the means to earn a few dollars for his basic necessities.

“No, I don’t,” he said with a hint of embarrassment—but only a hint; he still maintained an air of dignity. “I’ve only arrived in New York three days ago from Mississippi. I was hoping to find a job in construction, but I haven’t found anything yet.”

He spoke slowly, as if reading from a script. At first it made me think that everything he said was part of something he’d rehearsed. But as we spoke I realized that was just his manner of speaking. I looked him over, observing his handsome face and lean physique, but most of all, his gentle manner, and wondered about his first-choice of occupation. He held his gloved hands against his chest, his fingers intertwined.

“Do you know anyone who might be able to use my services?” he asked in that slow gentle voice.

“I’m afraid not,” I said. “But I’ll keep my eyes open.”

He was sleeping at a shelter, he said. I forget now which one. He said it was very unpleasant, housing people who were unruly and often violent.

I was starting to genuinely like this man, so sincere, so human. But I couldn’t escape the thought that the fact that he was homeless made him different from me in a fundamental way. Perhaps he’s mentally ill, I thought, and it just doesn’t show because he’s just taken his medication. Or perhaps he’s an alcoholic, or a drug addict. But nothing about him suggested anything but a healthy person with a lucid and sober mind.

He went on to tell me that his name was Kevin, and he had very little family, just an elderly mother who was living in an old age home, which was run by their Christian community in his hometown, and who’d encouraged him to come to New York to find a better job. He was fifty, he said.

I don’t remember all the particulars of his story. Perhaps they weren’t very exciting, or happy, or miserable, or maybe we didn’t talk much about his particular circumstances. Because very soon we found ourselves talking about matters I never thought I’d be talking about with a homeless black man on the corner of Broadway and 14th street. We must have stood there for two hours discussing religion, music, books, humanity, and life. To the question of whether he’s a religious man, he said, “yes, but not of a particular religion.” And he was greatly surprised when I told him my own views on religion.

He was surprisingly well read. He knew a lot about history, had some general knowledge of science and the humanities, and he was passionate about music. Mostly jazz. Not so much the jazz you hear in clubs today, he said almost apologetically, but the great jazz players—and here he rattled off a dozen or so names, the only one I recognized was Miles Davis. Of course, his taste in music wasn’t so surprising, being that the origins of jazz were in blues and the African-American music from the south. I’d recently acquired a taste in jazz myself, albeit the more contemporary styles that fused it with the elements of rock music and pop sounds. But it felt wonderful to be discussing music with someone who had a deep and genuine appreciation for that universal language of the heart.

“I feel it was destiny that led me to meet you on this evening,” he said as we were getting ready to part. “This conversation has been very rewarding.”

I felt humbled and blessed to have been part of it, and I told him so. What I didn’t tell him was how ashamed I was of the unkind stereotype I held when he first came up to me.

“Again, if you should know about someone who might hire me, please do let me know. I can often be found in that Starbucks.” He pointed to the store over on 4th Avenue, which we could see from where we were. “It’s a place to sit down indoors, and the people are nice.”

As we parted, Kevin extended his hand. I leaned forward to give him a hug.

But I didn’t give him my phone number, or my address, or any other way for him to contact me. He was after all only a stranger, and a homeless one.

Months passed, spring turned into summer, and then came autumn, then winter. And through it all I’ve often thought of Kevin. In the freezing cold I wonder whether he’s found a place to keep warm and get a hot meal. I wonder if he’s found a job. I’ve looked for him a few times at Starbucks and the surrounding areas, but I’ve never seen him. I scour the faces of those sitting around in the parks or on church stoops, and when I don’t find him I take it as a good sign. That he must have found someplace to call home, and is no longer wandering the streets, begging from strangers. I wish I had given him my phone number, or at least received from him some sort of contact info, perhaps a phone number of a relative who might know where to find him.

But it is now too late, and all I have is the memory of a wonderful conversation.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.