Last night, as I was walked from the East Village to the subway, I spotted a young girl sitting underneath the street light with ragged hair and a cardboard sign that said, “Sometimes You Just Need A Little Help.” I glanced at her for a moment and then continued walking, as I normally do. But something told me to turn around…so I did.
Her paper cup was empty. She was sitting on bags, dressed in layers of brown and her hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in months. “Excuse me,” I approached. “Are you hungry?” (She nodded). “Let me buy you slice of pizza.” (I gestured to the pizza place across the street). She stood up right away, “I would love that! Thank you!”
“I’m Charlene…” as I held out my hand to shake hers. “I’m Mary,” She replied. “Nice to meet you, Mary.” Somehow I didn’t believe that was her real name.
She added, “I saw you walk by before, and I thought you looked like my Mom’s friend.” I had two thoughts: one, I was old enough to be her Mom and two, she saw me walk past the first time.
As we walked across the street for pizza, I asked her how long she’d been on the streets. She told me she’s been traveling for months…trying to get back to Texas. She also said she had a boyfriend and they were both sleeping at a friends house in the Bronx. I was relieved to know she had somewhere to sleep at night.
I bought her two slices; one for her and her boyfriend. She was polite, and gracious and sweet. I asked if she wanted to sit down and eat and she politely declined, explaining that she should get back to her spot as her boyfriend would be wondering where she was.
“I don’t really like to do this,” she revealed. “You know, sit out here and beg. People can be so mean…they spit in our cup and tell us to go get a job…which we’re trying to do and will do once we get back to Texas.” I just continued to listen.
“Thank you so much…I had been sitting here wishing for a slice of pizza.” I replied, “Well, I must have heard you.” She smiled. “Stay safe,” I said, as I wished her well and waved goodbye.
As I waked away, I realized in the ten years I’ve lived here, I had never done that before. I had never bought a stranger dinner. I had never engaged in a real conversation with someone who was a “beggar.” I was either too busy, too grossed-out by their appearance or frankly, just too disheartened to bother.
I know, especially as New Yorkers, we are constantly bombarded with all kinds of stories of people down on their luck. And it’s easy to clump them all in the same category and look the other way.
But I made a promise to myself last night. Even if I can’t always give money or buy someone dinner, I can always acknowledge them. Because everybody deserves to be seen. And sometimes, people just need a extra little help.