A Tale of Two Avenues

Park Avenue

The rain came down in droves.  I took a right from 38th street onto Park Avenue, one of the most spectacular streets I have ever seen in my life.  Grander in my opinion than many other famous stretches of road, including France’s beloved Champs-Elysees.  The old Pan Am building, currently known as the MetLife building, towers above me. Its fifty plus floors sit directly in the middle of Park Avenue, splitting Midtown in two.  I stop and stare as a parade of yellow taxis meander up the ramp leading directly to the MetLife building and to the majestic structure directly beneath it, Grand Central Station.

I am late.  My train to Connecticut leaves in ten minutes and I am four blocks away from the station, and another three minutes from track 24.  I start to pick up the pace.  As I look up the street, hoping to see the red dotted hand quickly switch to the white dotted man, I catch a stationary figure in my periphery.  A woman cowers in a small entryway no more than five or six feet wide.  It has a small step leading to the door which her back currently rests against.  An umbrella of cheap worn plastic stands between her crossed legs.  Her left hand holds the umbrella in place as the wind challenges her grip and the rain pelts the umbrella with surprising force.  In her right hand is a piece of flimsy cardboard that is the only barrier between her and the harsh elements outside the doorway.  But even this creative umbrella cardboard ad hoc structure is not enough to effectively shield her from the wind and rain as I witness drops penetrating the seam between this poor woman’s shelter.  Pimples litter the portion of her face I can see.  With her head looking down and the hood of her jacket masking most of it, however, it’s impossible to discern much else.

I remember seeing this woman yesterday.  And the day before.  And the week before that.  In fact, I’ve seen this woman most of the days in the past year that I’ve walked up one of the richest avenues in the world, just going about my morning commute.  Regardless of season, whether it be winter, summer, spring, or fall, she often sits on her step inside an otherwise unremarkable doorway.  It makes me wonder – where does she go on the few mornings I don’t see her?  What does she eat for breakfast?  How did she come to pick this particular Park Avenue doorway of all the doorways on this expansive street?  What life events transpired that led her to this doorway?  How does she go about getting food or water on a daily basis?  Where did she sleep last night?  Does she have a family?  And if so, do they know how she spends her days?

Jurgis Rudkus made me a cynic when it comes to the homeless.  He taught me of their tricks, ploys, and strategies. Many would use props in Packingtown; crying babies or sickly dogs worked best. After all, being homeless is competitive. The homeless have their “turf” or “territory” where they panhandle. Some even try to do it for a living and after a day’s work they head home with their loot. So as a matter of principle, I refuse to give to anyone on the street, no matter how elaborate or compelling their apparent state may be.

But Jurgis also taught me the struggle so many folks go through, even when they have tried or done anything and everything one could fathom to be able to live. And I am not even talking about living well, only satisfying the basic human necessities of food, shelter, and water. For those of you who have met Jurgis through his creator, Upton Sinclair, you will know the struggle he went through, with a family no less, to survive in the industrial sections of Chicago back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So while some of homeless may be frauds, I have come to a firm belief that the majority have been dealt an unfair hand, lacked a support system of family and friends, made poor choices, or a combination of all three. Regardless of what camp people fall in, however, they are still human beings capable of reason and emotion and therefore they deserve respect and help from all of us.

But that still does not mean I am stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to help this woman in the doorway. There must be places she can go, people to see who could help her, right? At least that seems to be what we’re taught to believe. I guess you will never know what she’ll do with the money. Will she fall into the pejorative homeless stereotypes of crack addicts, drunks, or degenerate money managers? How can I trust her? But even if I give to a charitable organization how do I know they’ll use the money wisely? So many people blindly give to these non-profits that have great brand recognition (i.e. the American Red Cross), but fail to conduct any due diligence on their expenditures for marketing, salaries, or lobbying. Some expenses in these areas are inevitable because that’s how the game works, but these organizations need to be held accountable regardless of how noble the cause they’re fighting for may be.

At the end of the day we all need to remember that many among us are suffering. Even with the Dow closing in on 18,000, the unemployment percentage decreasing, and the price of gasoline falling, many people are still hurting financially, even on the regal sidewalks of Park Avenue. And should you walk even further north on Park into Harlem or the Bronx, you will see a much different street than the one in Midtown. It is the ugly truth in New York City and in many other urban areas of America – the affluent and destitute living side by side, separated by buffer zones, but distinctly segregated from one another to the point where the median income drops exponentially in only a matter of blocks. All it takes is for the prosperous Metro North passengers going between the city to Westchester and Connecticut to open their eyes as the train goes through the northern sections of Harlem and the Bronx. These folks live and work in the same city they do. Many live on the very same majestic avenue they work and live on. Yet few of the more well off among us care so much as to turn their heads and look out the window as their train moves on. I am guilty as charged. Which is precisely why this tale of two avenues should serve as a reminder that as a modern economy and developed country we still have a long way to go.

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