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.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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