When I announced I was visiting New York for a month, a number of friends advocated for restaurants and culinary experiences I simply had to try. I heard things like, “They have the best pizza,” or “Nobody knows about this place, but their curries are to die for.” Ramen noodles, cheese cakes, and donuts.
It’s not surprising.
I think we all want to own a little piece of this mysterious mega-city, to know a secret spot for cranberry muffins or crepes or the best street vendors. To know a ‘best’ food item is to know New York in a way that that others do not, which means somehow New York knows you love her, so she let you find the best pierogies outside Poland.
I’m no different.
I wanted to have my own unique New York experience, to discover and love this city in a way others do not normally see.
That’s why I panhandled on Wall Street this morning for several hours, permitting a cardboard sign at my side to ask for money.
I woke up at 6:00 in my studio apartment in Chelsea, my home for the month of May, and dressed like I often do: camo pants, gray shirt, flannel jacket. Looking around the city for the past two weeks, I discovered I already dress pretty closely to homeless attire, so really, I didn’t have to alter my wardrobe. I haven’t shaved in a few days, so I’m all kinds of scruffy and this morning I resisted showering. My cardboard sign said, “Anything helps,” and I drew sad little dollar signs at the bottom, a suggestion for those who didn’t understand my words.
I hopped the Downtown 2 Train to Brooklyn and by 7:00 a.m. got off at Wall Street. I wanted to be ready for morning rush hour.
My first location wasn’t great, so after a half-hour I moved to be right *on* Wall Street, near the subway entrance, down the street from Tiffany & Co. Across the street, a majestic colossal giant with stout Greek columns and a tuxedo’d door man wearing a tall top hat. Every now and then the door man would catch my eye and sternly communicate, ‘Don’t come over here.’ And I would glare back, ‘I will if I feel like it.’
I had grabbed a Starbucks cup from the trash and wiped it dry. Placed it front of me with my sign and waited.
People walked by.
I contemplated the best way to conduct myself. I kept my hands out of my pocket, fingers interlaced in front of me. I figured that made me look harmless. Vulnerable.
New Yorkers on their way to work, clipped by. Cell phone chatter. People with coffee. Nobody really looked down at me. I noticed every cigarette butt in a 30 foot radius, every gum stain now a black circular tattoo on the city sidewalk.
I watched a clutch of moms bundle their kids into a school bus. I didn’t realize that – that New York kids got bussed to school. Huh. Interesting. I watched with curiosity and realized one of the mothers was deliberately keeping her back to me, standing between me and her kids, because, oh right. I was a panhandler.
When the first guy dropped money in my cup, I was stunned. I had forgotten why I was here.
He gave me $2.50 in quarters. He also gave me this big grin, as if he was delighted to see me. Then, he darted to the curb and into a cab. Almost immediately after that, an older man with silver hair dropped a dollar in my cup. He smiled big, too.
I hadn’t expected the smiling. I don’t know why.
A young guy, construction worker, whom I heard speaking in Spanish on his phone a moment earlier, dropped a dollar in my cup and showered me with this dazzling, unrestrained smile. It was a second date smile, the kind you get from someone who is happy to see you again and they want you to know it. I don’t know why I was shocked but I was. He moved four feet away and started a new phone conversation. He was in no hurry to get away from me.
A brown-haired woman veered off her linear path to pass me a dollar. She handed it to me seriously and turned to walk away. She was the first who didn’t smile. I wondered about her life and the kindness obviously in her that made her step my way. As she crossed the street, she looked over her shoulder at me and smiled big. She waved, as if leaving a friend after a coffee date.
A black woman in her 40’s gave me money and said, “God bless.” A Korean man in a pink shirt and white knit vest handed me a dollar and smiled shyly. He bolted away – it was obvious he was late for something – but he made time to stop for me. A woman with the most complicated bun and hair three different shades gave me money and murmured something like, “Mmmhmm,” before disappearing into the flow.
Black people. White people. Older. Young people. Casual dress. Suits. Everyone who contributed looked at me, looked me in the eye for a brief second.
A handsome young buck, sporting a burgundy shirt and silk tie handed me a dollar. He wore reflective sunglasses and like many others, had ear buds embedded in his skull. His hair was freshly shorn, stylish, very Abercrombie & Fitch. For some reason I thought I would see a smirk or a wrinkled judgment cross his face as he handed me the dollar. Something like, ‘Jesus, what happened to you, man?’
His mouth was terse, like he understood the seriousness of my situation and he nodded at me. Respectfully. And then he was lost in the crowd.
Mostly everyone ignored me, walking by on their way to busy lives. I didn’t resent them. I’d walk right by me, too. I wondered about them and if they had given money on the previous block or the previous day, the way some people were generous with me today.
I took the subway to Times Square for a different audience and experienced the same kindnesses, people who looked me in the eye for a moment. Smiled. Nodded. A woman gave me two crumpled dollars and boarded her bus. An older man, possibly Japanese, stopped and pulled out his wallet. He made time.
A twelve-year-old kid raced up close to me, dropped in a dollar, and darted away, like a sparrow. I think he was a tourist and asked his parents permission to do this act of kindness. A toddler waddled by and seeing me at her eye-level, she burst into giggles. I waved and she screeched with delight, looking back as she and her mom moved toward the theaters.
A guy with frazzled hair, donning ear buds and smoking a dangling cigarette, approached and put $2 in my cup and stared into my eyes. Without words he somehow communicated, ‘I understand.’ I tried to fathom what he meant by that look, what he had gone through, his life experiences, but the only thing I got was him letting me know, ‘I understand.’
I cried when he walked away because he was so earnest and genuinely worried about me.
Best of all, I had the most amazing food today.
While at my Wall Street location, an Asian-American woman handed me an aluminum foil-wrapped square. After I watched her walk away, I noticed she was carrying a brown bag for her lunch. I unwrapped the tin foil to find her homemade sandwich.
She made it with processed cheese, the kind that remains imprinted with its individual plastic wrap. The meat was a thinly-sliced, cheap hybrid of ham and pastrami, rather difficult to name. Wheat bread. Mayonnaise. It wasn’t fully cut in half as the bottom piece of bread was barely perforated. A half-assed job done by someone in a hurry. I know. I’ve made sandwiches like that.
Obviously, she had made it for herself, but when she encountered someone who she thought needed it more, she did not hesitate. She gifted it to me and disappeared into the crowd of busy professionals.
I gave away all the money I collected to my fellow panhandlers, those who truly needed it. I made sure to look them in the eye and smile big. I now know how much that matters.
But I ate her sandwich.
Swear to God, it was the best homemade sandwich you will ever find in New York.
I consumed it slowly while sitting on a bench before the impressive Wall Street Exchange, reflecting on my own reasons to love this big city.