A handful of delivery men – or are they dealers, or numbers runners? – curse him and move off. A middle-aged woman leans heavily against her suitcase, adjusting her weight and stretching out a swollen leg.
Antonia, as she introduces herself, is not obviously homeless, but she is indeed looking for shelter, having just survived her first night ever on the street. A volunteer from our van who works as a nurse notices that a sore on her leg is badly infected, and after a short exchange she’s dialing 311, trying to reach somebody from the Department of Homeless Services. (They’ll send a van, they promise, and take her to a nearby shelter.)
Others could avail themselves of the same help if they wanted to, but only a few will. Who wants to spend the night in an intake center waiting room, interrogated by social workers and badgered about past drug use – especially if the reward is a bleak dormitory? Who would want communal showers, thieving roommates, and bedbugs, followed by mandatory ejection the next morning?
Not Rufus, a genial character who says he’ll never do it again. “Shelters suck,” he announces, “I’m out here rain, wind or snow!” Still, he’s grateful for a knit blanket someone offers him, and with help he’s soon positioning it on his seat, a replacement for the pile of newspapers he’s been sitting on all day.
As Rufus wheels off down 31st Street, police officers appear out of nowhere. Alarmed, we scan the block around us, but relax again almost immediately. They’re simply securing the sidewalk for a celebrity. Suddenly, Congressman Charles Rangel and Senator Chuck Schumer emerge from the Garden, briskly crossing the plaza and disappearing into waiting limousines. “It’s all good, Charlie! No one’s after you!” Rufus yells, as Rangel’s driver pulls away.
Meanwhile, the last pints of soup are being handed out. One goes to Hector, a high school dropout from Harlem. It turns out he used to be a classmate of one of my sons. Now, kicked out by his mother, and refusing shelter with his stepfather, he roams the streets of midtown Manhattan alone. Later, at home, I’m told he has a reputation – for dabbling in Goth culture and levitating a piece of aluminum foil in the high school cafeteria. What will the rest of his life be like, if it looks like this when he’s only fifteen?
Now the last container has gone, to a nameless preacher happy both for the soup and the chance to dispense some wisdom. “Been hustling out here since 1957,” he tells the woman in front of him. “On a good day you can make $1,000…well, maybe that much. But tell you what: to really stay peaceful when trouble comes your way, jus’ gotta walk away from it! Now, sista, I gotta go. Play it straight, and keep down with J.C. Everything’s gonna be all right.”
Back at the van, we’re stacking the empty hampers, picking up soiled napkins from the sidewalk, and waiting for two volunteers who took a sweater to Antonia, just in case DHS doesn’t show. It’s grown chilly, and the moon has appeared high above the spire of the Empire State Building. A pair of beat cops trudge toward Seventh Avenue, eliciting a volley of barks from unseen kennels. “It’s the Homeland Security dogs,” someone explains. “They keep their German shepherds there since 9/11.”