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2004-03-05

Sergio Leone
B. 1.3.29 Rome / D. 4.30.89 Rome
Heart Attack

So I decide soon after I get off the train in Manhattan, and the Union Square farmers market isn’t selling any greens, which in my ignorance surprises me, that anyway I’m not going to break a twenty buying food in Manhattan; instead I’ll cook an omelet when I get home. Which leaves me with two dollar bills in my coat pocket.

On the way up Fifth Avenue to my “office” on 22nd Street, which I always walk up on the right hand side of Fifth so I can see the Empire State Building, I come to a cardboard sign propped up on the sidewalk near a doorway. It’s messy-scrawled in marker: “Homeless and Pregnant” with more details below in smaller writing; its referent slumps in the doorway, raised from the sidewalk on a step. She's white, early 20s, well-fed at least in her youth. Looking back at her over my shoulder I think, “Go home.” In the same instant there flashes through my mind an image of her family’s upstairs hallway, with wall-to-wall and banisters and master bathroom door ajar. What would I be doing in giving? Helping her stay an idiot.

Still, I almost turned back. But at the curb I was struck by a speeding suspicion that this was one of those college or grad student things, where they document the indifference of the world to suffering on video, for class credit. Crossing the street I imagined encountering the film crew on the next half-block, which when they asked me why I’d almost turned back but hadn’t, I’d hand them a dollar bill and say, “So you’ll know that you’re taking this from someone who needed it more.” But they never appeared.

Back on the street after picking up my paycheck I’ve got to cross Sixth Avenue at 23rd. On the sidewalk nearly blocking the crosswalk curb a crippled black man crouches in a lawn chair with a cup; but I’ve just caught the light.

After evening prayer, which don’t ask, but there’s no offering or collection plate in sight, I’m waiting and waiting for the downtown train at Christopher Street station. The “token” booth is near me, to my left, and the woman inside has been unusually voluble into her communicating microphone. I become aware that she’s addressing the same man, who persists in running the same Metrocard—or a series of Metrocards, she cannot seem to tell—through every turnstile slot. He can’t get through, presumably because there’s no money “on” the card(s) or at least not enough; but he’s not giving up and she’s not letting it pass, nor him either. Looking over at this scene I think, “Black on black torture.” The image that flashes through my mind comes from the front page of The New York Times on-line: a Haitian man in a Haitian truck, catching a Haitian boot sole in the side of his face, and the Haitian ankle protruding between boot and pants cuff. . .click.

Was it my place to shut her up by paying the man’s fare with my Metrocard, reach over the turnstile and just slide it through on his behalf? Or to hand him two dollar bills and say, “Go make her sell you a single-ride card”? Why, then, when the train came, did I leave him standing there outside the gate? Because I was overtaken by a notion that both of them were less lonely at the moment than they'd been; I left them to each other's company. I assumed she’d let him through once he started to bore her.

So I get back to Brighton Beach and promptly break a twenty on a rotisserie chicken with spicy carrot salad on the side. At home, on my sofa, I am comfortable. I didn’t spend a single penny in Manhattan.

My sense of triumph starts to fade.

Consolation Site: E blam blam blam

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