You Can't Keep It Unless You Give It Away

By Linda Pressman 11/01/18

The responsibility to give honestly is my job; the responsibility to take honestly is theirs and not for me to determine. I could go crazy trying to decide which homeless person is worthy and which is not.

giving money to a bearded homeless man
Suddenly I sought the encounter. I was waiting with their money in my back pocket.

It's one of the odd truths about life in New York City that some days a homeless person might just be the only person who talks to you, especially if you work solo and live alone. During my months-long stay in New York this year, I walked alone, ate alone, sat alone at two plays, shopped alone, got lost alone, took the subway alone, all with no conversations and no interactions. Of course, I was partially to blame. In my zeal to be considered what I thought a real New Yorker was, I had an impassive face perfected and was proud of my aplomb. I wasn’t a tourist, after all. I was there taking a class, trying vainly to get the city out of my bloodstream so that I wouldn’t suddenly run away from my husband in Arizona and move there permanently.

One of the things I had to do to be like a native was ignore the homeless. I took my cue from those around me, rushing to wherever I needed to be, looking impassively straight ahead when the solicitations started on my subway car. It was hard. Hands beseeching, cups outstretched, people sleeping in piles of blankets on the sidewalks, the distinction between blankets and human being inside not always apparent.

This plan seemed to work. At least, until my depression recurred and I began to feel I was dying. One night, before burrowing into my hotel room, I went to get some fruit from a market on Park Avenue, passing a man on the way there whom I thought was loudly ranting into his phone about “some woman.” Certainly none of my business so I knew I needed to paste on my impassive face and walk on by. But on the way back, carrying a bag of bananas and oranges, I listened more closely and I realized the woman he was ranting about was me.

“Look at her with all that fruit. She can’t give me some. Don’t even care, walking on by with bananas and oranges, swinging that bag. She’s evil, don’t care about nothing and no one.”

At my home in Arizona I carry money in my car’s center console in case I happen to be pulled up alongside a person with a sign standing in the center median at an intersection. I’m a little cautious so I move my purse away from the window, roll it down, look in the person’s eyes and wish them the best.

But I was in New York and taking cues from real New Yorkers. Yes, the homeless problem was overwhelming here, so overwhelming that perhaps the only way to deal with it is not to encourage it. I understand I was dropped here out of the blue with no history and no understanding of the differences between the New York homeless problem and that of my home state.

Back in my hotel room, the fruit put away, I was shaken. What did I think I was doing? My 12-step program teaches me that I am no better than any other human being on earth, and certainly no better than any possible person who may have a substance use disorder. It teaches me that judgement is poison for any addict. And that the responsibility to give honestly is my job; the responsibility to take honestly is theirs and not for me to determine. I could go crazy trying to decide which homeless person is worthy and which is not. I know from the program that if I hold something too closely I’ll lose it and only by living fearlessly and letting go can I be free. And I read somewhere that the universe, God, Higher Power – whatever – doesn’t handle money, that what we have in excess is for us to give.

It turns out that it’s impossible to get New York out of my bloodstream. If anything, I fall more in love with it, with the grid lines of the streets and avenues, with the museums, with the crowds and food, and with the beauty of spring when it suddenly appears, and I find myself basking in the unbelievable sunshine at Bryant Park.

I know all the controversy out there about the homeless and giving. I know that some say New Yorkers should only give to the Coalition for the Poor. Others say that giving only increases the homeless population, encouraging them to stay in certain neighborhoods. Some people give food, others nothing. It’s a seemingly unsolvable issue, even with nearly two billion dollars in the state’s budget to fix it.

But the political became personal when I suddenly understood that I hadn’t become someone else when I came to New York; I had to stop pretending.

I checked my wallet. Among some larger bills, I had nine single dollars. I folded them all and put them in the back pockets of my jeans, so they’d be easy to reach. The next day when I heard someone ask for help I looked into my fellow human being’s eyes and remembered that I’m one of them. It changed how I felt about the streets, the dread of the nonstop pleas. Suddenly I sought the encounter. I was waiting with their money in my back pocket.

I never ran out of single dollars and each night I had more of them in my wallet to hand out the next day.

In recovery programs, they say that what we’re doing by sponsoring people and doing service and putting ourselves out there is not so much to help others as it is to help ourselves, so we can stay sober. What I learned was that I wasn’t giving money to save all the homeless people in New York. I’m not that important and one dollar isn’t going to do that much. I was giving the money to save my own life. I was doing it so I could stay human.

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Linda Pressman is a freelance writer, editor, and the author of Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors and Skokie. She has written for Kveller, Motherwell Magazine. Brain Child Magazine, Six Hens and Sand Hills Literary Journal. Visit her on FacebookTwitter, and her blog, Bar Mitzvahzilla.