Since the latest economic pratfall, the homeless population of New York City seems to have doubled, and there’s always been a gaggle of these troubled souls on my Greenwich Village block. Usually I avoided them and kept moving, remembering the words of more senior New Yorkers: never make eye contact.
Then one November day I noticed a new guy standing in front of a coffee shop on the block. He was in his forties, stocky, wearing a tattered wool coat and a stocking cap. He had a feathery mustache and a toothless smile. He looked harmless; still, I was leery because I was about to use the ATM outside of the shop.
When I finished, he asked for money for coffee. It was a raw day, so I gave him two singles. He went inside and I went about my business.
Several days later, I went into a McDonald’s for a burger. When I sat down, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a homeless man.
“Let me guess, you want money,” I said with disdain.
“I just want something to eat.” The look in his eyes got to me. He really did want food and there I sat, fat, warm and with a home to go to. I gave him a 10 spot. He thanked me and got in the chow line.
If you’re thinking liberal guilt, don’t.
My politics are to the right of Bismarck’s, but if I saw a dog starving in the street, I’d feed it and take it to a shelter. If I could do that for a canine, I could do it for a member of my own species, as well as treat them with respect and dignity.
The next time I went to that ATM, the same panhandler was there. I stuck my empty hand out and introduced myself. He shook my hand, telling me his name was George. I asked if he’d like to have lunch with me at the deli around the corner. That seemed to make him happy so away we went.
Over the meal I asked him about himself. He told me that he’d been on the street since he was 12 and on my block for about six months.
When I asked where he slept, he said anywhere because he liked it outside. I asked if he would like to go to a city shelter, just to get warm. George shuddered and said they were awful. He’d been there and didn’t want to do it again.
My wife and I had a cleaning lady who came in on Wednesdays, and as a freelance writer who works at home, I had to clear out when she arrived. I’d been killing time by having breakfast at a diner and catching an early movie. I asked George if he liked movies and he said he loved them. So we feasted on corned beef hash and eggs, then watched Coraline in 3D. George loved it. And so it began: We would meet Wednesday mornings, have breakfast and see a show, my treat. We became friends.
It wasn’t hard to befriend George because he wasn’t a sot or a drug addict and he had a clean fetish—the only odor about him was tobacco.
That’s what he wasn’t. I learned he was: illiterate, mildly retarded, delusional yet charming. George was like an errant 10-year-old boy who got excited if I bought him anything from shoes to a Coke. He had a great belly laugh and wouldn’t hurt a fly… or so I thought.
One day I came out of my building and saw George across the street, muttering to himself while waving his arms. When a woman walked by, he started to yell obscenities at her. I yelled at George and he stopped in his tracks. I scolded him as he looked at the ground and apologized. He said he got angry sometimes and couldn’t help it. I also discovered he became unhinged if he was caught in a crowd.
I described the behavior to my shrink and he said it sounded like paranoid schizophrenia, yet it was treatable because
George was in touch with reality most of the time.
This illness and the fact that, by this time, winter was coming again made me act. I called my sister-in-law, a professor of social work in Chicago, and asked if she knew of anything I could do. She gave me the number of a colleague who in turn gave me the number of a “Client Advocate” in New York.
Cutting to the chase: The advocate came to meet George. She put him in a program so good, I can’t believe the city offered it. He now has his own assisted living apartment, for which he pays rent from his SSI Disability money, and he couldn’t be happier. He’s been given medication, he sees a psychiatrist and he attends an anger management group. He’s also learning how to read, write and draw.
We still meet on Wednesdays. Last week we saw Red. We both loved it. Afterwards we had coffee and talked. George has a lot to say these days.