What’s the first thing you do right after work – especially if you live in a major city? Grab some food to go? Order some delivery? Grab a few drinks with some friends? How much spare time do you usually have in the evenings after work? 30 minutes? 1 hour? 2 hours or even more depending on the day of the week?
Here’s a completely random question – How often do you see homeless people on the street or in the subway stations, and you wonder if you should do something? Give something? You would love to give some food if you had any on you. You contemplate on if you should give the person money – where will it go? Will it go to drugs and/or alcohol? Then you think – “Naw, I’m not going to give that person money..” – and you justify yourself by thinking next time if you have leftovers or something and you’ll see a homeless person again – you’ll give it to them.
Having lived in New York City for just only a few months, I got used to seeing homeless people now. There are a little bit over 40,000 homeless people in New York, a city that has over 8.5 million people – and I always wondered what would happen if we all just took one small initiative.
Well – I tried something new last Thursday, and hopefully this form of action will catch on with other people.
I was having an “Eh” day after coming back to the city from my office in New Jersey, especially one particular conversation I had during my bus ride back to the city (see previous blog post..lol). So whenever I do go to my office in New Jersey, I usually take the bus from Port Authority on West 42nd Street, and that same bus drops me back off there from the office as well. Then I take the A train into Downtown Manhattan to get home. Well, so I was on my way catching the train in the subway – I see an elderly homeless Asian woman begging for money.
I stopped and thought: “Should I give this person money? I wish I had some food on me to give her…” Then it occurred to me – I looked at my watch, and figured I didn’t have anything important to do besides catching up on sleep. I went up to the lady and asked if she was hungry, and that I didn’t have any cash on me, but would like to buy her dinner.
At first, she looked confused. I’m not sure if it was due to some language barrier, but she understood after I repeated myself a couple of times. She kindly accepted my offer, and I took her to Au Bon Pain (Bread and Soup Place) inside the Port Authority Terminal.
I told her she can get whatever she wanted, but she refused, and wanted me to pick out whatever I wanted to get her. I haven’t had dinner either, so I figured I would join her as well. Luckily, Au Bon Pain was serving the Vegetarian Chili (my favorite) – so I got us both two large breadbowls with the large chili/soup, two yogurts, and two vitamin waters. I also bought some extra bread just in case she was extremely hungry.
We sat down quietly, and I was expecting her to basically “go to town” with the food, but she politely waited until I started. I was extremely amazed how polite and well-mannered she was – and that’s when my curious brain started taking a toll. I wanted to know her story, but wanted to be careful without probing too much.
I got my notebook ready. It was a freebie from a corporate presentation. It has a huge logo on it and I usually cover it up frequently since I use this notebook for presentations from other companies. One percent of the revenues of the company that gave me the notebook would be enough to buy 200,000 dinners or to give every homeless person in New York $30,000.
I politely asked her on how she got into the situation she’s in currently, and she shared me her story with her broken English.
Apparently, she arrived in California from China in 1999 when she was about 51 years old with her husband. They had children already settled in the US, so they decided to come here to be closer to them. Their kids took care of them until her husband passed away 3 years later. She then had a nervous breakdown 2 years after her husband passing away, and I believe she was telling me that she started “hearing and seeing things.” I tried my best to understand her broken English, and I guess with years of having parents speaking broken English, I became pretty decent at figuring out what she was trying to say.
She continued with her story, and told me how herself, her son and daughter-in-law came to visit NYC in 2005. They did the touristy stuff for a day, and next thing – they just left her alone at Penn Station.
I didn’t know what to say at that point. I became so upset and was so angry, when she told me that – I tried to remain calm and normal as possible because I wanted to hear the rest of her story, but I just kind of figured out the rest in my head.
She’s been alone on the streets ever since. She tried to get help from someone that was Chinese – she tried at Chinatown, and no one really helped her because she was on the verge of another mental breakdown.
I tried to ask about her son and daughter-in-law, but it seemed like she wanted to avoid that topic, so I didn’t push it. At about that time, we finished our dinner – and our time was up. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I just went to an ATM and took some cash out, and gave her a $20 bill – who knows how long that will help her survive. I know that these people make about $5-$6 max a day from panhandling – and I knew that if she survived this long – this should last her a few days hopefully.
Mei said she still sees things and hears voices. She seemed completely normal to me.
My time was up with her. I gave her the $20 bill. She said thank you. When I left, she placed the bill deep in her pockets of her rugged jacket. I wonder why Mei seemed so much at peace. Is it because she was crazy? She’s 62 years old with no real family, no money, panhandling in front of Port Authority, and yet she seemed to be perfectly happy. I wonder how much of her story Mei made up. I checked my notes for dates. She always gave me her age and the year. Everything added up.
About 20-25% of homeless adults suffer from a mental condition. Mei is just one from many thousands. I still wonder why she is on the streets. Why have we, as a society, failed to find a way to help people like Mei? Hell, her own son, her own blood threw her out on the streets! What the hell is wrong with people? Where did humanity go? Somewhere there is a place for her. It is not in front of Port Authority. We should have some sort of responsibility to the community we live in. Does that responsibility include doing something to help people like Mei? Is this a question of mis-allocated resources that no Cobb Douglas production function can solve? Given how much we already do in the community, is it our responsibility to do more?
We all pick our battles. We should decide if this is the battle we want to fight. There is something very noble about Mei. I think it is the fact that she counts her blessings, no matter how many curveballs life has thrown at her. Something they never taught at Ohio State nor Harvard.
Next time – if you have time, and you do see a homeless person panhandling – just take a chance to listen to their story – you may never know what you can gain from it.