It’s a great story for the Christmas season; the Broadway cop who interrupted his beat to buy shoes and socks for a homeless man barefoot in the winter cold. We expect cops to be tough and inured to the quotidian hardships of life on city streets. Other New Yorkers, as they walked by, laughed and mocked the discomfort of this poor man. These details served to further highlight the patrolman’s charity.
But if you’re a New Yorker you’ve grown cynical to the ways of the city as well. After all, this was a young, inexperienced officer who grew up in the gentler suburbs of Long Island. Give him time to toughen up. And the fact that the photographer had connections to an Arizona police force inspires initial suspicion of some sort of self-interest and manipulation.
If you are a cynical New Yorker you might have initially considered these caveats as I did before buying the story . Or perhaps not.
The short story writer O. Henry was also a con man. He spent time in prison and was haunted by personal demons. Yet he wrote one of the most heart-warming, moving stories about Christmas-giving in the English canon, second only to Dickens. And it took place in hard-scrabble New York City.
I think New Yorkers (and this is almost unique to New Yorkers) have a special capacity to be cynical AND sentimental, streetwise AND compassionate, guarded AND caring. They have a reputation for moving too fast, being self-concerned and rude, yet I have visited many cities around the world and I’ve never seen one where so many citizens offer unsolicited help to bemused strangers with maps. Yes, we have the old story of Kitty Genovese but we also have stories of New Yorkers who leap onto subway tracks to save another, who chase purse snatchers or give all in time of crisis like Hurricane Sandy and after 9/11. We have our share of con artists like Rosie Ruiz and Madoff and Kerik but we also have our share of heroes and those who donate their lives for the well being of others. We have our share of stories like the next two but we also have our share of stories like the two that follow these.
I was sitting in an outdoor café on Columbus Avenue when a bearded, disheveled man walked by my table. “I’m hungry,” he growled at me. “Give me some money for food…” The waiter had just plopped a fat, juicy hamburger on my table magnifying the guilt factor. I don’t like to give out money on the street as you never know whether it will help or hurt the person to whom you’re giving. But I looked up and down at the burger and replied: “Here, take this. We’ll both probably be better off if I give you half” and proceeded to slice off my lunch. I wrapped it in the wax paper on which it rested and placed it in his hands. No thank you. No acknowledgement at all. Then I watched him walk away to the corner and dump it in the garbage pail.
I was driving down 58th street by the Plaza Hotel one night when I saw a frantic young woman lifted her head from the window from the car in front of me. Her face was tear stained and she was a windmill of waving arms trying to flag me down. “Please, please, my name is (so and so), I live in Edison, New Jersey,” she sobbed. “You can call my mother if you like, I’ll give you her number…Someone just stole my purse and I can’t get home. My car is in the lot and they won’t let me take it out unless I pay. Please help me…I’ll send you back the money. I promise….I just don’t know what to do–where I will sleep, where will I go? I have no way to get home…” Her face was wild with anxiety and tears were streaming from her eyes. I offered her a twenty and warned: “This is probably a scam. I know it…but its one I’ve never heard before and on the small chance it is true here’s $20 and a business card. If you’re going to pay me back just call the number and I’ll give you my address.” Instead of a ‘thank you’ she told me that the garage was $29 and she couldn’t get home without that amount…so I threw another twenty on top of what I’d given her. Well…..of course I never got a call but about three months later I was driving in bumper to bumper traffic down W 57th Street with Kyle and there she is leaning into the car in front of me. “Watch this,” I warned Kyle, my blood pressure rising. The tears were flowing, the face anguished as she leaned in and began her spiel. “Get your face out of my car before I punch it,” I shouted. “You’re a great actress. Why don’t you walk a few blocks south and get a job on Broadway!” The tears stopped like turning off a garden hose. She composed herself in a second and moved on to the next car.
On the other hand, one day I was taking the escalator up from the Lincoln Plaza Theater. I was looking down and when I got to the top I saw a pair of shiny Brogues buffed to a sheen so reflective you could see your face in them. Above them was a man with a goatee in a natty three piece woven suit; atop his head a snazzy straw boater. He seemed like a well dressed character out of time, a dandy—polished and neatly buttoned up, as spiffy as they come. With a wide grin he began to address me: “Do you remember last winter when it was freezing cold and a man on the street came to you asking for money? You said you don’t give money on the street but you took him to buy soup and a cup of coffee? Do you remember that?” I did. The poor soul had been shivering in the bitter winter under a wrinkled shirt with no overcoat. “Well, that was me!” he said grinning. “I jest want to thank you for that. You really helped me out when I was cold and hungry and I appreciate it. I been thinking about that awhile and been looking for you. When I saw you coming out of the movies I had to say ‘thank you’.” “My G-d,” I exclaimed. “I can’t believe you. Look at you now! Just look at you! You’re better dressed than I am! What happened?” His smile got even wider: “I found Jesus!” he nodded. “Well, whatever works for you keep it up because it is doing the job!” Our handshake turned into a hug.
Another time I was walking up Columbus when I spotted a young couple heading towards me. As they walked their arms were entwined in the way that told the world they were very much in love. They were not just heading in my direction. They stopped me to say thank you for taking them into a restaurant the winter before when they were desperate. They reminded me that I gave my credit card to the cashier then and told her to ring up $20 and feed them anything they wanted up to that amount. They were desperate then. Now the city had found them shelter and they both were working towards their GED’s. They remembered that night more than I did. I watched them linked together in hope and love, as if they were holding onto each other for life. . It was starting to get cold and the wind was sharpening. Winter would soon be here again.
To paraphrase Beckett life in the big city teaches us: “We can’t believe. But we must believe.”
Yeah, so maybe that homeless guy that got the cops shoes went off to trade them for a bottle of rotgut. Or maybe he walked in those shoes to a place where he could turn his life around. Sometimes in the grand scheme of things a lot of stories don’t ultimately have happy endings. Tiny Tim who cries out ‘G-d bless us everyone’ will probably still die young in the alternative future chosen by Scrooge. Anne Frank’s inspiring narrative ends not at Auschwitz but with her belief that ‘despite it all I still believe people are basically good’.
In the end it’s not what’s in the hearts of others that matters because you can’t control those hearts. What is important is the commitment you have to what is in your own.
Good for you Officer DePrimo. This city will no doubt make you tougher. May it never make you harder of heart.