As usual, many responses involve the soup’s provenance: “Tom’s Diner! That’s the place on Seinfeld, right?” Some recipients aren’t interested in our attention. One, a thick-armed man with a purplish bruise on his left temple, is openly menacing. The next is ecstatic, but much scarier. “F--- the handshakes; gimme a hug. I LOVE you guys! Come on, a hug!”
On cold, windy days, or in rainy weather, most of our takers can be found in Penn Station itself, their bundles and carts and unkempt beards making them easy to pick out amid the pinstripes and silk scarves of the bridge and tunnel crowd. Sometimes they’ll find a seat in a waiting area, but it won’t last long: Port Authority security officers regularly turn away anyone who can’t produce a ticket or a commuter pass. For the homeless, night must drag on forever here, what with the harsh fluorescent lighting, the stale air and endless rumble of trains, the annoying strains of Vivaldi piped incessantly over the intercom.
Tonight, one of the first balmy evenings of spring, the activity is definitely on the street, however. When we find Angel, an elderly man in a wheelchair, he’s rifling through a wire mesh trash can on the corner. He’s copped a limp sandwich smeared with what looks like dressing, and is reaching for a half-empty bottle of Vitamin Water. “Naw, man,” he yells over the crackle of his headphones when offered soup. “I tried some last week. It wasn’t even hot.” (Later he does accept a container from another volunteer.)
Lemon, whose odor betrays a recently smoked blunt, is purposefully swinging a wiffleball bat as he lurches onto the scene. “Tom’s Diner? Baby, I know dis neighbahood. Ain’t no such place this side of Brooklyn.”
A young man – like most, nameless to us – looks up out of his black hoodie and guesses that we’re with Midnight Run, a well-known local provider (we’re not). “Soup?” he asks, then nods resignedly. “Whatever… what I really need is boxers and socks.” It’s got to be hard to conjure up appreciation for something you don’t want, especially when collared by a stranger at the end of a long day. This doesn’t turn out to be true of the man slumped next to him. Much older, and more timid, he hasn’t bathed in days, and reeks. His fingernails are long and grimy, and one eye is swollen, teary, unseeing. When offered soup, he lifts his face, meeting mine with a radiant, grateful smile. “Thanks. God bless ya’ll. Get home safe.”
Walking back past Borders to the van for more soup, a fellow volunteer notes the irony of a new book on display. Penned by a certain Mohammad Yunus, its title is Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. What would the author have to say to the people we’ve seen this evening?
Turning a corner into a leafy little plaza opposite Macy’s, tidy enough by day, but strewn with garbage now, at night, we’re met with a predictable slice of transient New York. A prostitute is leaning against a Verizon booth, gesticulating and picking at an unlit cigarette. An old man crouched near her is nodding off on a stack of today’s Metro; a flamboyant young transvestite is laughing at no one in particular.