Tuesday, January 11, 2011

About the girl

Looking west across the Hudson River. 11 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011. Fair, cold and mild in New York. Lots of snow forecast for tomorrow. (1/11/11). I’m not a numerologist but there must be some significance to this date, no?

Last Friday’s Diary about the girl
panhandling on Fifth Avenue (1.7.11) drew the greatest number of responses we’ve ever had in our ten years on the NYSD. We’re going to run a few of them here because of the variety of the responses, all of which are thought provoking.

Panhandling is nothing new in New York. When I first came here out of college in the 1960s, they were almost always alcoholic men in worn, wrinkled, dirt-stained clothing, scruffy, down and out. There was one man who often passed through my neighborhood (the East 80s) who despite his disheveled appearance, had a stentorian manner in his request for “two bits” (a quarter), positively elegant in expressing his thanks for a buck. This wit served him, as he was amusing.

It was generally assumed that most working the streets and avenues lived in the flophouses on the Bowery – which was, in those days, the bottom of the barrel, residence-wise. Only “bums” (which is what they were called) lived in (or on) the Bowery.

In the late 1970s when New York was suffering from a great financial crisis, there were times when the streets of the city were full of homeless people desperate just for a place to sit or lie down – which often meant the middle of the sidewalk -- so that you’d often have to walk around or step over them.

When I first came back to New York from California in the early 90s, and staying on Gracie Square with a friend, Carl Schurz Park had several full-time homeless residents – mainly men – who slept on the park benches year round.

There was only one woman – a very large, overweight woman with a sweet face and a lovely voice – who occupied, with several suitcases in tow, one particular bench just inside the park. She was always well-groomed. Her long dark brown hair was neatly worn up, and her long black dresses while not fresh, were spotless. When the cold weather and the snow came, by nightfall she would be bundled in blankets – although no umbrella – as if prepared for the frequent storms, always sitting up in that one place, surrounded by her bags of belongings.

Although I never had a conversation with her, I could see some women in the neighborhood had made her acquaintance and seemed to know a great deal about her. They would bring her food, especially soups and sandwiches, and some even hired her to housesit and care for their pets when they traveled.

I learned that although she was homeless, she had a bank account and a post office box, and frequently sent out resumes searching for a job (what kind, I don’t know). During the Giuliani Administration, however, the parks were swept of these people, including, eventually, the lady in black.

One cold rainy early evening in the late autumn just before another winter was setting in, I happened to be walking by a building that was being renovated into a private townhouse on East 84th Street in which the front door had not yet been installed. I stopped to look at the opening, amazed that the contractors hadn’t closed off the space for the night. Just inside at the top of some stairs, in what would be the entry way, there was enough light from the street to make out the outline of a massive figure, sitting silently and still in the dark, like a haunting. It was the lady from the park. When I walked by a couple of weeks later, at the same time of evening, the entrance had been covered with a makeshift door. She obviously had been evicted from her shelter, and I never saw her again.

Although I often (but not always) stop for people who are begging on the street, the young woman this past Friday caught my eye because of her two small Pomeranians seated on a bed of blankets by her side. It pains me to see animals (and children), total dependents, faced with the issue of caregivers who are homeless. When I stopped (after passing by and returning) to talk to the young woman I was mainly concerned about the animals and her assumed pregnancy. The dogs did look remarkably well-cared for and energetic. This is not true of all animals who are being held/used/possessed by those who take up residence on the pavement. Many animals often wear an expression of uncertainty and desperation that reflects their owners/master’s predicament.

When I spoke to the young woman – who had been until that moment immersed in a thick paperback, I noticed that she and her dogs were well covered for the winter’s cold. The quilted, weatherproof black coats on the dogs were expensive (and fashionable), as were the woman’s garments of hats, caps, scarves, sweaters and coat. Unlike many street people (and their animals), everything was neat and clean and obviously cared for. It was a relief to see, but the context was a puzzlement.
The emails we received after posting the Diary about them added to the mystery. Here is a sampling:

Re: Walking Along Fifth Avenue

Thank you for that. I also have been noticing a marked increase in homeless on the streets of NYC as well as the large towns in New Hampshire where I am on the weekends. Why? I don't have the answer either.

I just needed to underline what you observed, that we all are aware of it but don't understand it.

It just could lean me at some point towards the unattractive theory that all statistics of well being we absorb from the government are manipulated to have us behave as they would like us to. Inflation numbers are notoriously wrong. Unemployment numbers notoriously wrong. And perhaps the sense of well being being purveyed as the true reflection of the state of the masses is not a true one at all. With foreclosures, boomers out of work, more banks going to go under, my suspicion is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here in NH, I am working on a fundraiser for the food pantry. The need from last year has doubled as the available funds have dwindled. It is very sad. At Thanksgiving I brought the usual turkeys but this time brought some canned hams. They were thrilled. They said there were a lot of people they feed with no oven to cook a turkey, and many sleeping in cars and in campgrounds. This is in New Hampshire, a wealthy state, a well educated state, a primary state. (not to mention our animal shelters overflowing because people are not able to put food on the table for both their family and their dogs and cats ...)


Pretty good article on the lady. It’s a quandary; is it a scam or not? The problem is can we be the judge? It’s obvious that the people in the other pictures (ed. note: pictures that accompanied the original article) need serious help. I'm from Toronto and we have the same situation. I believe the governments should be looking at foreign aid right here at home.

And another:

I just returned from a walk here on Beacon Hill in Boston...I was struck by the sight of more homeless people than usual...and suddenly there you were thinking about the same things. I fear you were probably correct in thinking that the "pregnant girl" was on some level scamming. BUT you did the right thing...who wants to be the one that turned their back on someone who truly might be in need. What with a tip, you can blow that much on a single martini in an upscale restaurant.

My eldest daughter is applying for grad school, a double major, an MBA in non profit management and an MA in public policy. In reading her essays, I discovered that one of her motivations in choosing this path was our long family relationship with one of the regular street people in our neighborhood. 'Michael' is not technically homeless as he has space in a shelter/home. He has adopted us a family - Mom, Dad and little sisters. He never actually asks for money and refuses to take money from tourists asking for directions. Michael is well known to many businessmen who give him a dollar or so on their way to work. His problem does not seem to be drink or drugs. In today's world, he most likely would have been diagnosed with a severe learning disability. I fear that in his case, no one stopped to help when there was still time to make a difference.

Thank you for making us think about something other than ourselves.

I like you would have done the same thing. I would have felt I needed to help her and mostly the dogs (I am a dog lover) in some way. I do not usually give money to any of them, anymore, not being sure if it would be used to buy alcohol or drugs, I would/will offer food. Do you know how many times that was turned down? Which left me thinking, these homeless were working a business and I was not going to be duped. Is that not awful, to have it come to that?. Is that what we New Yorkers think when we pass them by, these homeless people, pretending they are not even there?

And then:


As an animal rescue worker, I am particularly interested in your items about charity events benefiting shelters (your piece on the benefit sale for Friends of Animal Rescue led me to them, and a $500 grant for a veterinary emergency) and your wonderful dog stories and photos.

I meant to email you after reading your words about foolish people tying up their dogs outside of shops. Like you and many others, I tend to park myself next to the tied-up dog and wait for the “owner” to respectfully advise them about the reality of dog-napping. 

I’m writing to you about the girl begging with the dogs you featured in today’s Diary. Been going on for years, now. Young people, often zoned-out-looking, reading, cardboard signs, dog.  You can see them almost any day near NYU, Union Square (in front of Whole Foods) on West 23rd near where I live. My friends think it’s some sort of “cult” or commune and that the beggars actually have housing and are probably well-educated. The cardboard signs are all similarly worded – need ticket home, my father (or some other family member) has died and I need to get home for the funeral, etc. And always the dog – usually very large, weary-looking, docile dogs. In cold weather, wearing coats or under blankets. Never thin, fur in relatively good condition.

I believe you saw just another one of these strange beings who exploit animals for money. I don’t give them money any longer – I honestly don’t think they need it. Often, I just sigh and buy them a bag of dog chow. 

Thanks for the Diary! I enjoy all of it! (And special thanks for adopting your pets from the AC&C.)

Then a different take:

I am not a socialite, nor a wife of an investment banker, nor an heir. I am just an attorney with a lovely husband and 17-year-old son who is about to journey to New York (our favorite city in the world besides Paris) to attend NYU. I lived in New York at the end of the 70s. The city is a bit different now, as you have noted on several occasions.

I am most taken by your article on the homeless woman with the two dogs. You are correct, she is not dressed in rags, her clothes show some sophistication. Then again, I do not often see a panhandler or homeless person dressed in rags these days. It is not hard to go to a thrift shop or Army Navy store and acquire an entire wardrobe, much easier than in the "old days" when regular street clothes were more expensive. 

Last winter, I was in my car with my son, stopped at a major intersection off of a main highway in downtown Boston. It was 15 degrees out and extremely windy. A woman was standing in the ferocious cold with a sign "Please, I need to feed my two children, please give whatever you can". It really did not matter to me whether she was a "scam" or not, in that weather, one could freeze to death very quickly. Who would go out in it like that if their needs were not greater than our own? My son gave her ten dollars immediately from his pocket. I hope it enabled her to get to a warm place more quickly than before we stopped.

I am so proud to hear that you stopped, noticed and made a contribution. Whether she was fooling is not of real consequence. It was deathly cold, and sometimes one just has to reach out and do something.

I know you are not looking for kudos. I read your work enough to know that. But you deserve some, as there were so many who passed her by without even so much as a fare-thee-well. Thank you for your very thoughtful words.

And another:

Dear Mr. Columbia,

Your encounter with the young homeless woman and your generosity to her reminded me of a similar experience that I would like to share with you. 

A number of years ago I was at the fall season premiere of American Ballet Theater at the City Center. It was a glittering event. I was able to recognize among the audience many of the people who frequent your pages. I have been a ballet fan for decades and although I often go to the ballet, opera and concerts, I don’t often attend opening nights or society events, so for me the evening was memorable and exciting.

At the end of the performance many of the guests walked the few blocks to the venue where the gala was to be held. The garage where my car was parked was in the same direction and I found myself walking just behind Susan Fales-Hill (who I recognized from your column) and her husband. A few feet ahead of them were Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and a companion.  

A block ahead of all of us was a sleeping homeless man, perhaps in his 50’s, clean cut, decently dressed, lying huddled over a grate and against a building foundation for warmth. As we slowly approached, with me walking behind these very privileged and accomplished women in their evening gowns, I was never more aware of the dichotomy between those who have everything and those who have nothing.

It was a chilly October evening. The weather reports were predicting severe thunderstorms. The sky was overcast and the wind was picking up. I could see very clearly that this man in his shirtsleeves was completely unprotected and would be drenched in the impending storm. I looked ahead at these two women who had everything and at this man lying on the pavement who had nothing and I’m not sure what possessed me or why but I took off my raincoat and covered him with it.

I have to admit, as I got into my car and drove home I felt like a stupid gullible chump.  I am not in a position to go giving away raincoats and I wondered why I should have felt any responsibility for this human being when he was invisible to those who had so much more than I.

Almost immediately after that evening, I was faced with the serious illnesses (and disability) of my ex husband and also of my mother. In addition to being solely responsible for their care I was raising a teenage daughter and had a demanding job with which I supported myself. Often I was completely overwhelmed and in despair. Every night I would climb into bed wondering how I could get through the next day and wishing my life was not so challenged. I would think of that man with my raincoat whose bed was a metal grate on a cement sidewalk, and I would think of my own very comfortable and safe bed in my comfortable home and I knew I had a great deal to be thankful for and that is what got me through an impossible time in my life. 

And one last one to add to the puzzle:

Hi DPC -

I work on Madison Avenue/50s and this woman sat out front of our storefront several weeks ago on a Saturday and moved on after several people stopped to find out her circumstance, perhaps up to where you saw her. I don't know when you actually snapped this pic. It was very alarming and we all thought the same exact thoughts as you. I did not speak with her, but this is not behavior of a sane person, and why would someone let her couch-surf and then panhandle for $480, especially if your friend is pregnant and with 2 dogs? This situation sort of reminds me of the woman that chose to live underground on the subway tracks with the "mole people" to feed her drug habit. She actually had a husband in Soho and family in the city. Do you remember this story? The woman has a sister that owns a clothing store by NYU and she bailed her out over and over again and finally at some point she finally came around and kicked her drug habit and has started her life over.

Very timely you put this story on your blog when the media is fighting for top news coverage of the homeless man with the golden voice. (sadly, I doubt the media will care in one year) But this guy has 9 kids! And a family that obviously gave up on him because of his drug habit. They say in the news media he has been sober/clean for 2 years now. Both of these homeless people seem to be mentally capable, so I hope that they are able to get beyond their circumstances. It is very disturbing and it makes one very thankful to have a good family and friends!
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