Sunday, April 18, 2010

Homeless Man on the Stairs

Returning at 2AM last night from celebrating a friend's birthday in the West Village and walking bleary-eyed down the stairs with my dog to give him a late night pee, I was surprised by a homeless man camped out on the stairs inside my buildling.  He was thin and old.  He wore a soiled and tattered jacket and clutched a  single plastic bag filled with his belongings.  An uncombed, white beard and mustache obscured the bottom half of his face.  What are you doing here, I asked.  He replied in garbled English, his eyes clouded with dementia, not alcohol or drugs.  I tried Spanish, but that got us no further.  He said, I know someone who lives here.  I am waiting for her, she will let me in.  I said, do you need help?  He did not understand and refused my offer.  A glimmer of anger emerged at the suggestion of needing help.  He said, I know someone here.  See, I have keys.  And he showed me two shiny keys attached to his waste band.  I repeated, do you need help?  More anger.  Pride.  And finally, shame.  He said, I'll be back.  I'll come back shaved.  You'll see.  I'll come back shaved.  And he descended the stairway, off into the night.  In my apartment I closed the windows and double bolted the door.  This was senseless on my part.  So old and frail, this man was perhaps more afraid of my dog and I, than I of him.  Where did that man go last night?  I often wonder about solitary elderly people:  why are they alone?  Why does no one care for them?  The condition is especially dire for men.  More than women, whose physical strength may inspire less fear of violence, few help men in trouble.  Adrift alone in this world, they often refuse help, responding with anger and pride.  Still, I wonder... did this man survive the night?  What could I have done differently?     

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