On giving and misgivings

Not long ago, I was making my way home from Manhattan to Queens after meeting a friend for dinner. In the passage way between the 4-5-6 trains and the 7 train was a young woman, sitting with her back against the wall, with a backpack beside her. Against her legs she had propped a sign:

“7 months pregnant, boyfriend left me, stranded.”

I walked right past her, ignoring the twinge of concern and guilt and pity I often feel when I see a homeless person asking for help. I walked right past her, as you have to learn to do when you live in a big city like New York. I walked right past her, and, as you also learn to do when you live in a big city with a poverty problem, I ran through all the reasons why I was walking right past her without doing anything:

I could have stopped, but it’s really better to call 311. You know “give the homeless the kind of change they can really use?”

What if she’s gone by the time they get there? And how would they even identify her? And do they really help, or are those ads just designed to discourage people from giving to panhandlers, and to therefore discourage panhandling at all?

But there are so many people asking for help, and you can’t give to them all.

You can give to this one. Why can’t you give to this one? When was the last time you gave change to a homeless person, anyway?

But I don’t have any cash on me. I don’t think I even have a quarter in my wallet.

There are two Bank of America ATMS within a block of Grand Central Station.

But –

- But, but, but. Chloe, are you really going to walk past a pregnant homeless woman and do absolutely nothing?

I stood on the platform waiting for my train with these thoughts chasing each other around in my head. Then, almost before I knew it, I had turned around and was walking up the stairs, back through the passage and past the young woman, up above ground and toward one of those two ATMs. My hands shook as I slid my card into the machine and took $100 out of my savings account. I’m not sure why they were shaking, just as I’m not sure why I ran back to the station the moment I had the money in my hand. I think I was afraid that she would have disappeared by the time I got back, that after all that wavering, my attempt to help her would be foiled somehow.

She hadn’t disappeared. I walked up to her and squatted down. I gave her the money and she looked at me in surprise.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Absolutely. What’s your name?”

She said her name was Roxanne. She was reading a book, something from the Penguin Classic collection. She wore glasses. I asked her if she was going to be alright, and she said she was. I wished her a good night and got on my train.

I had walked past at least half a dozen other homeless people on my way to and from the ATM. Even in my haste to get to the bank and back to Roxanne, I hadn’t failed to notice that I had, well, fail to notice them. As I made my way home, I asked myself why I had been compelled to act in this one particular case. I asked myself, would I have given her money if she weren’t visibly pregnant? Weren’t those other people I passed on my way through the station – and the other people I pass every day on the streets of New York – just as deserving of my help? They are, and I often don’t give it.

Chloe, are you really going to walk past a pregnant homeless woman and do absolutely nothing?

That’s what it came down to. I couldn’t think of a single reason why I shouldn’t help her. And I couldn’t bring myself to stand on the platform making excuses for why I wasn’t acting. So I acted.

I wish I could help everyone who asks for it in a similar way. I wish I had enough money to give it away to everyone who needs it and everyone who asks. I hate that this one act was so arbitrary, and that it was merely a drop in the ocean.

But I’m glad I could do it, even if I can’t afford to do it that often.

More than two months later, I hope Roxanne is alright. I hope she found a place to sleep that night, and every night. I hope her baby was born healthy.

I hope.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Instances like this embody the idea of “the personal is political.” We’re New Yorkers; in order to make it through our day we have to make dozens of subconscious decisions in order to navigate our lives and get shit done. And sometimes that means not seeing the suffering of our fellow New Yorkers, which is unfortunate, but there it is. But for whatever reason–the fact that she was a woman, and that as a feminist you know that she likely has a particularly difficult path ahead of her, giving birth in a comfortable place, getting the kind of support she’ll need to navigate *her* life as a mother without the stability of a home–this felt personal. In a small way, it’s activism.

  2. Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t have been able to walk past her either… I’ve been pregnant and scared, and nearly homeless. Thankfully, you were in a position to assist.

  3. Posted May 12, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Thank you.

    When I was pregnant, my former partner developed a debilitating mental illness. He ended up leaving me when our daughter was just over one year old. During my pregnancy, he quit his job–and I lost my insurance. We ended up homeless, living on his credit cards in a motel. I was well-aware that with my burgeoning belly, no employer would hire me. (I had just graduated and moved across the country).

    Reading this brought back many memories of my first full-term pregnancy. They aren’t by any means happy memories, but every act of kindness and compassion shown to me during that isolating, scary time ARE remembered very well.

  4. Posted May 12, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Chloe, thank you so much for writing this. I’ve often had the same thoughts when passing homeless people. Because I live in the suburbs I don’t often see homeless people, but when I do (typically because I’m in St. Paul for school) I feel so guilty at not helping them.

  5. Posted May 12, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Chloe — my name is Chloe too, and I had a remarkably similar experience during the holiday season.

    I live in Westchester, but for 2 months I was, in fact, homeless, and was lucky enough to be able to catsit for a bunch of people in Brooklyn. I did not connect my particular living situation with that of people on the street, because I wasn’t the one sitting out in the cold, now, was I? I commuted 4 hours a day to my babysitting job in Westchester and arrived “home” depleted in every way.

    Right before Christmas, I received a holiday bonus from the family I babysit for – they gave me $100 on top of the money I had earned for the day. I was really excited – this would basically take care of my travel expenses for the month, so that I wouldn’t be losing money by commuting.

    I made a transfer at the Fulton St. stop between the 4 and the A trains and there was a woman, who appeared roughly my age, sitting against a post with a sign that said “Homeless. Cold. Anything helps, I wish you the best.” I was struck – maybe I am not in the city often enough, or maybe I have learned to filter out the folks who are asking for change or food or whatever by way of some privileged survival instinct – but I felt like it was the first time I was really seeing a woman sitting on the ground with a sign. She was reading one of my favorite books, and she was unobtrusive, hunched in on herself.

    I walked by and ran through very similar excuses, rationalizations, and self-imposed guilt trip. I finally came to the same conclusion as you – she is not harassing me or anyone else; she needs help just as much as anyone else does, and who am I to question that?; will it truly affect me in any negative way to just do what I can?

    I went back and knelt down and gave her my bonus. She was shocked (I was too, haha). We had this indescribable moment of eye contact, and then I got up and walked away. I kicked myself for not talking with her – but for some reason my heart was pounding and I was nearing tears.

    Cut to the next several weeks. I was a housesitter all over Brooklyn and Queens. Somehow, despite my change in location, I would run into her in various subway stops around the city. We’ve never talked, and I don’t know if she would even recognize me, but I think it just goes to show that there is a rhyme and reason underlying the things we do, the people we meet, and the small ways the world operates. I believe in connectivity and the ripple effect of our actions.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It brought mine back in stark relief, and as I sit in a professional office now, working in a movement I am passionate about, with a comfortable apartment to call my own, I gain a little much needed perspective.

  6. Posted May 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    This was a very touching, very unselfish gesture on your part. I myself am always a little wary, because I once had someone point out to me all the ways that those in need run a scams by playing on peoples’ sympathies. So I think I know now at least the most obvious signs. I’ve been had before in lots of ways and it makes a person often less inclined to trust.

    But it seems like the person you’ve described had a genuine need, and it’s wonderful that you were able to assist her. Perhaps in time I’ll be able to conquer my own wariness.

  7. Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I was really touched by this story. No, you can’t help everyone who needs help, but you helped one person. She needed help, and you gave it. And that was wonderful.

  8. Posted May 13, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this. It’s really easy to forget about your feminism when faced with a situation like this, and to shrug of the reality of a woman in need. I really admire you for doing this, and while I live in a rural area where homelessness isn’t as out in the open as it is in NYC, I’ll definitely be looking for ways to put my feminism into practice by your example.

  9. Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    This is so touching. It really hit home for me, as this past fall I had a similar encounter with a homeless woman in Soho. I was completely broke at the time and had nothing to give her, but I’m always going to keep an eye out for her in the city in hopes of making up for my inability to help her that day.

  10. Posted May 15, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    Have you read the Enough blog? [www.enoughenough.org] It’s a place for people to write, think and talk about their class politics, and what they call “the personal politics of resisting capitalism.” You might pass this along their way.

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