The weather in Florida dropped to mid-forties last week. Out of storage came the heavy sweaters, socks, long pants, caps and fleece jackets, now the attire day and night. Patti and I bundled up and went for brunch in West Palm at Howleys Diner on South Dixie, an active street much like Second Avenue in New York City–lots of restaurants, simple fare and shops offering everything from clock repair to fancy, out of date furniture consignments. After a brief wait a table was available. Seated next to the entrance we felt a cold breeze each time the door opened. Our coffee had just been served when a disheveled young man wearing a dirty Santa hat entered. Unkempt beard, loosely hanging, tattered clothes, he had the appearance of too much time on the streets and not enough time cleaning up. He seated himself next to us and I instinctively pushed my chair away from him and closer to Patti. Not a peep from Patti, casual and unnerved as she can be. Anxious about his close proximity, I looked about and to my surprise there was the manager holding a large to-go cup of hot coffee. He set it carefully in front of the young man, who picked it up with both hands and sipped cautiously, not wanting to spill a drop of the precious commodity. The manager hovered over him and gently coaxed the visitor out the front door. I was relieved, but ashamed that I reacted the way I had, so ill at ease by his presence.
I have encountered homeless people in New York for years; they are more prevalent now, since Covid. I walk around them sitting or lying on the sidewalk in front of CVS on the corner of 68th street and Third Avenue. I fear many have burned bridges with family and friends and lack any support system. Mental illness pervades the homeless population. I have empathy and the desire to help and pressing some cash into an open hand temporarily assuages my guilt. I held out a sandwich once and was told “I don’t like turkey.” I offered what I thought was needed, but it was not what was wanted. Advocates for the homeless have a mantra: “We can’t take away their right to be homeless.” But what does “right to be homeless” mean? What about the right of the average person to feel unafraid when they pass a homeless person, given the number of recorded random attacks? Most homeless are not of sound mind, so are they capable of making decisions in their own best interest? If not, is leaving them on the street and labelling it as their “choice” or “right” morally wrong? Isn’t “homeless” a spectrum — from the single mom who has to live in a motel or in her car with her kids because she was evicted, to the violent, mental hospital patient released prematurely for lack of beds? If they are not capable of helping themselves are our politicians doing enough? I am troubled by the “homeless” problem and all of its implications and questions.
The weather has returned to the usual 80 degrees. I suspect the young man in the Santa cap found the shelter up the road on South Dixie. The line for a meal and a place to sleep starts snaking mid-day in Florida. I am going to seek out answers to some of my questions and do more to help.
I was up from Florida this past week for a brief stay in East Hampton and then into New York for a rainy weekend. OMG do I miss Florida on a cold rainy day. On Saturday the skies cleared enough to go ahead with the usual routine – haircut and shave at York barbershop, breakfast at Neil’s on the corner of Lexington and 70th Street, and finally “happy hour” at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore to browse for works by Elizabeth Hardwick. I have been reading Robert Lowell, the poet, and now have expanded to the other writers in his circle; Hardwick was his second wife and an acclaimed novelist and essayist. Lunch with my pal Jay was scheduled for early afternoon at The Mansion diner on the corner of 86th and York Avenue, near to Jay’s apartment. We arrived to find the restaurant closed, the front entrance obstructed with equipment for a movie being filmed on the block. Only in New York! Jay recommended we go across the street to Tal Bagels. A traditional New York bagel shop is a unique restaurant experience. If you’ve never been to one, basically it is an “appetizing” takeout with all kinds of fish—smoked salmon (“nova” or “lox”), whitefish, gefilte fish (not really a fish), smoked herring, pickled herring and pickled herring in cream sauce. There are all kinds of salads, such as tuna salad, whitefish salad, egg salad, fruit salad. Then the cream cheeses: plain, or with vegetable, or with nova, or cinnamon raisin and even tofu non-dairy. And deli galore, from corned beef to roast beef to tongue. Everything to go on a bagel. Aside from the bagels there are flagels – flattened bagels, and bialys, a type of roll with onion or poppy seed, and rugelach – a sweet roll with nuts and chocolate.
The line to the counter at Tal’s ran out to the sidewalk but it was moving quickly. There were a few tables inside for those like us who came to “dine.” Jay took a seat to hold a table while I took to the line. You must be fast and ready to respond to “Whata ya want mista?” I was studying the menu and lost my place in line. Quick to recover I ordered, paid, and awaited the omelet with a toasted sesame bagel on the side for me and the lox and bagel for Jay. Back in my seat, I felt someone brush past me. It was an older man walking carefully toward the counter. He held a long white stick with a red tip. At first glance I did not realize that he was blind because he was wearing reading glasses. He turned to face me and said, “Pardon me.” “No problem,” I responded. I watched as the man behind the counter handed the blind fellow his order and took two five-dollar bills for payment, no change. Apparently, he was a regular. As he managed to make his way out of the deli I got up from my seat and touched his elbow. “Can I help you to the door?” I asked him. He nodded and I gently held his elbow, guiding him. We walked together to the exit, and I offer to assist him down the stairs to the street. “No thank you, young man,” he said. My youthful voice obviously misled him into thinking I was not an 83-year-old bagel eater. I took it as a compliment. I went back in to finish lunch with Jay as it started to rain again.
I was up late this last Sunday of September on the eve of Rosh Hashana. New York is quiet during the Jewish holidays. The walk west along 68th street to the newsstand on the corner of Lexington Ave was not the usual upstream push against the crowd of hospital workers on their way from the exit of the subway to New York Hospital on First Avenue. The stands that line 68th street were robust with days-old fruit and vegetables, the salespeople on their cell phones speaking in Middle East languages. The stack of New York Times Sunday papers was unusually high as was the New York Post. New Yorkers were not in town that was obvious. I decided to take my morning coffee at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the corner of 68th and Lexington-my usual haunt whenever I am in the city. A stack of books awaiting author signature were at the cash register-Ian McEwan’s “Lessons.” I was quick to buy a copy. The young woman behind the counter was pleasant. We were alone in the store. I felt like I had just dropped into a sacred land of books, virtually alone with all these authors in the early morning when I could touch any book and feel inspired. There is something special to me about bookstores. My early years upstate at Scranton’s on Main Street, I would walk the aisles unable to buy anything for lack of spendable money. More importantly I didn’t have the knowledge I have today of authors and topics of interest. It took three years of reading American literature and history at Rutgers to finally accept that I could read and more importantly grasp what was written notwithstanding my dyslexia. Here I was in this sacred place able to buy any book and able to be selective. With coffee in hand I sat down in a corner of the book store and delved into the Times only to see on the front page an article on a newly discovered trove of Hemingway stories, documents, unpublished works and photos on display at Penn State University. I was immediately taken by the article and read it through in the quiet room. I walked over to the shelves with Hemingway and scanned his many works. It was personal like I was able to talk to the author. I was transfixed. Some say bookstores like local newspapers are of the past. Carl and I talked last night after watching the film about a day in the life of The Mountain Messenger. I felt relieved that I am alive in a time when both bookstores and newspapers are still in existence despite the preponderance of technology. It was great to be in New York this Sunday before I travel south for the winter. All is good with me.