We saw them long before we got to our destination, on the imposing stone steps of St. Thomas Fifth Avenue – “we” being a van of volunteers from Harlem, and “them” a good dozen homeless men. Some were hunched, others comfortably sprawled or standing. Together, in the half-darkness, they provided a surreal backdrop to the well-dressed horde hurrying past them.
We were headed for Madison Square Garden and the maze of subterranean passages beneath it that forms Penn Station, America’s busiest rail hub. As we snaked our way down the East Side through heavy traffic, steam rose from the containers at the back of the van, and by the time we got to our designated distribution point on the corner of 31st and 8th, everybody smelled of cream-of-chicken soup…
Setting up on the curb – pint-size soup cups stacked in laundry hampers; a box of crackers, spoons, and napkins; bags of toiletries; bundled blankets and sweaters – we find ourselves swimming in an endless swirl of people. There are earnest-looking commuters with bulging backpacks and laptop bags; jabbering secretaries tottering over subway grates in their high heels, Starbucks cups clutched tight. Sweaty tourists race by with cameras bouncing on their chests, bumped by the occasional clutch of sports fans, the latter in team attire, half-drunk, and already way too loud. None of these are the people we drove downtown for, but they’ll show up soon enough; they always do, as soon as word spreads that the van’s here.
Suddenly we spot them down the block – eight or nine shadowy figures in the arched doorways of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. Two are already stretched out on the sidewalk, asleep, heads resting on plastic bags stuffed with clothing. Two more are rummaging through their shopping carts, and another is setting up his cardboard sleeping tunnel. It’s a train of boxes, bottoms opened and fitted end to end. Somebody’s snoring from a completed one nearby. Joanne, the only person in the group we know by name, is sitting vacant-eyed on a low concrete ledge, her upper lip white with a dried milky substance. She’s wearing the same faded red sweats she’s had on for weeks. When greeted, she manages a half-hearted hello, but she doesn’t want soup. “Too tired,” she mutters.
On the opposite side of 31st Street – just thirty feet from us, but another world – is Ristorante Il Campanello, “midtown’s premier Italo-Argentinian eatery.” Music wafts over the sidewalk as a waiter comes out to adjust the menu easel. His elegant patrons are visible as dim profiles, bathed in yellow light though obscured by gauzy curtains. Can they see the scene just across the street? Would anyone want to, if it spoiled dinner?
Fanning out in twos, some of us head down the escalators into Penn Station, while others sweep the surrounding blocks. We soon identify dozens in need of hot food. Most we invite back to the van; others, like the guy lying in front of Tracks, an underground bar, we promise to bring a container. “Be back in five minutes,” I assure him. (It takes ten, by which time the police have removed him.)