Now some of you may be thinking that writing ten novels is a pretty big deal, or that starting a
successful business might be my claim. However these achievements are almost
common place these days. My greatest achievement is far more unique--in fact it
may be one of those once in a century happenings.
I was in New York City at the Port Authority on lovely 42nd Street where the
hookers strolled about looking sickly with their unpleasant scabby mouths. Where the street
corners were populated by the quick-eyed and nervous young black men chanting out the single word: "Smoke"
repeatedly under their breath in an effort to sell their weed. And where the bums sat in doorways amidst clouds of eye-watering stink.
This was April or May of 1985 and I was young still. I laughed at the tourists who went around
clutching their purses, terrified of these inhabitants of the west side. Yet I wasn't the least ways
nervous. I was a New Yorker, after all, and the Port Authority was nothing new to me.
It was coming on evening and I had just given my girlfriend a wave good-bye as she slid out of sight on the subway,
when a minute later I realized: she still had my wallet! I had given it to her to hold onto earlier, and now, she and it were blazing down the southbound tracks on the way to the Staten Island Ferry terminal.
Of course this was before the advent of the cell phone and so there was no getting her back easily. I would have to wait
until she traversed half of Manhattan, took a ferry-boat across the harbor and then rode thirty minutes on a bus before she arrived home--and only then could I beg her to come all the way back. Yeesh. It seemed my only other choice was to
call my mother and have her drive into the city from New Jersey.
Did I mention this was smack in the middle of rush-hour? And did I mention that my mother would only laugh at me? She loved
me, but not so much she'd make that trip.
Standing there on the platform I decided to take stock of my situation. I dug through my pockets desperately, hoping that I
would have at least a dollar so I wouldn't be forced to call collect when I begged for my ride, but to my great surprise I found three dollars in my back pocket. Excitement surged through me, yet it was short lived. Unfortunately a
ticket to Montclair was $3.50. I was fifty cents short. So now I had a new choice. I could sit there for hours waiting for my mother or my girlfriend to come rescue me, both of whom would be irate beyond the telling, or I could do the manly thing and beg complete strangers for money.
Pissed off mother or begging?
It seemed like such an easy choice. I decided to beg. As a New Yorker I'd literally seen it done a thousand times. It
looked simple enough. After taking a deep breath, I lifted my right hand and with my index finger pointed upward, I made to flag down the first person of means I laid my eyes on--a man in a three piece suit. With that polite hand
raised I froze in that posture. I was perfectly paralyzed with a silly/humble/foolish smile splayed across my face; and I stayed that way until he passed me by without a glance. Then I slumped in place as though the act had been a strenuous one.
Next a women in a smart pant-suit and clacking heels strolled by. Up went the hand and the extended pointer finger. Up
went the corners of my mouth in a smile that I hoped would make me appear harmless and earnest all at once...and again I stayed there in statue form unable to overcome the inertia of, not only my up-bringing, but also of my personal experiences. I had been through the Port Authority on hundreds of occasions and had seen all sorts of pan-handlers and beggars. There
were the alcoholics, growing desperate. There were the terribly skinny girls who swayed as they stood, under the effects of some sort of illegal high. And there were the trumpet players, and the dancers, and the vets who weren't at all
likely to be vets, and the blind people who smacked you with their canes as they passed if you pretended not to see them.
But to me the worst sorts of beggars were the teens who were perpetually in need of a "quarter" to get back home to New
Jersey. I saw the same ones day after day using the identical lines and no one ever believed their stories. People only gave them money to make them go away or perhaps to assuage their guilt.
They were all perfectly sound young men, physically fit, yet morally plagued...and there I was forced to give them
credibility with my actual plight. It was too much for me. My dignity wouldn't allow it. Time and again, people with obvious wealth came by and each and every time I couldn't bring myself to open my mouth beyond the creaky and crooked
smile that slowly began to deteriorate as the minutes passed.
Finally I gave up. I couldn't beg. I was just too proud...or so I thought.
Despondent, I went to a bench and collapsed onto it and sat there staring at the aging tile until my olfactory nerves were
suddenly and irritatingly over-whelmed by the familiar, pungent aroma of one of New York's least finest.
A world class bum, arrayed in his rags and filth came to stand far too close to me. I leaned back, my eyes blinking and my
throat beginning to spasm.
"Hey man, do you have a quarter?" he asked of me. He gave no reason for wanting the money--a fact I appreciated. It meant
he had some sense to him. It meant that whatever inner demons had turned him into this vile street-person hadn't completely corrupted his mind. It meant he must have known what he was and how he looked to other human beings.
I started to shake my head, no, but before I could speak the word, the man sat down next to me on the bench. What a shock
that was. A bum plopping himself down along side of me was not a novelty, though it was a first in conjunction with an attempt at solicitation. He was completely at his ease and acted as though we had some sort of connection. The bum raised
his wild brows and waited on me to answer. In any other situation I would have given him a perfunctory, "Sorry", and then been quick to vacate the area. This wasn't that sort of situation. The bum and I did have a connection--we were both beggars.
I gave him a smile that came easier than I would have expected and said: "I don't. I need a quarter myself."
Perhaps my smile was sincere enough to penetrate to the man he had been, or maybe it was the fact that he realized
nobody but a very desperate person would ask a New York City bum for a quarter. Either way the man cocked his head quizzically and said, "Really?"
"Yeah. I'm short for my bus."
This made him pause; clearly he has seen the teens operate in the bus station for some time and knew the old, "I need to
get back to Jersey" refrain they repeated endlessly...and I knew that he knew. I gave him a tiny shrug that held pure embarrassment. At this the bum snorted and then reached a grimy paw into one of his deep pockets and pulled out an
impressive mound of silver coins. He picked out a quarter and made to hand it over.
I raised that finger which had been so impotent earlier. "I'm actually short fifty cents," I said sheepishly. The fact
that I had the audacity to draw from the well a second time made him laugh. It was a wheezy sound, and one that he probably hadn't made in some time.
He laughed until he was red beneath his grime and then said simply, "Ok," before he gave up the two quarters.
I thanked him honestly as well as loudly and might have gone too far because he seemed embarrassed at my gratitude and
actually waived me away, as though he were the prince and I the pauper. I went straight to the counter to purchase my ticket and a minute later, as I washed my hands with the hottest water the bus station could generate, I vowed that the next time I saw that bum I would give him ten dollars--a worldly sum for me back then.
And I fully planned to. I went so far as to squirrel away the money and it was only a week later that I saw that same
bum...and then my vow fell through. I was very much prepared to give him the money, only he was sitting amongst a veritable pack of street people in a part of the station that was closed for repairs. There must have been at least eight
of the fellows, each looking ragged and quite scary.
A single bum, squatting on a corner with his fist out, was one thing, this gathering of feral humans was something else
entirely. Numbers had made them aggressive. They called to the working girls, asking for freebies, they leered at the lost tourists, and they passed around a couple of ill-disguised bottles of booze, while one among them urinated against
I'm sad to say I lost my nerve. I was a New Yorker, after all, and in 1985 every New Yorker knew three things: you never
traipse through Harlem at midnight, you never go into a back alley to purchase an illegal weapon from someone you just met, and you definitely don't saunter up to a wild pack of bums in a poorly lit corner of Port Authority.
I told myself: The next time I see him, I'll definitely give him the money. It was a promise that I intended to keep, only there was no next time. I never saw that bum again, and I always wondered what happened to him. In this instance being a New Yorker turned out to be a bad thing. The emotional walls, the tough veneer, the over-reliance on street smarts, the snap decisions had left me on the wrong side of morality. I had put that ten dollars in my wallet, knowing in the back of my mind I'd never see that guy again, yet there he was and what did I do? Make excuses.
That was it, my greatest accomplishment. I begged money from a New York City bum--a feat that may not happen once in a century. Am I proud of this? No.The bum should be, however. He acted in a way that would have made Jesus proud. To paraphrase: "What you do for the least of my brothers you do for me." It was a lesson learned.