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Our Homeless Citizens, The Native New Yorkers
It was a sunny, crisp winter day, and the bright sun voiced its opinion as I looked up on New Year’s Eve 2009. My senses were bombarded with the aroma of hot pretzels and mustard, then as I walked on, I received a blast of warm air from a grate. It was a welcome feeling at that stage. Then came the unmistakable smell of chestnuts, and I was thinking of the familiar Christmas carol at that point. Traffic was stop and go, and without looking, I could hear when the lights changed. For a moment, I tried to rely as little as possible on sight, other than getting me to my destination. I was then enamored by the smells of the local restaurants: the piquant smell of Thai, the savory aroma of Chinese, Indian, and even apple and champagne sausages.
I was then at the infamous Penn Station, awaiting a train from Toronto that was due to arrive in five hours. Instead, it turned into eight hours. Several times from where I was standing, I was approached by a young black male, a handsome chap, but one with a monkey on his back, or maybe more than one. He greeted me several times, the conversations were all the same, enamored by my presence. He was a hustler, which no doubt kept him in enough cash to keep himself alive, but that was likely it.
As I roamed about to keep myself occupied on this New Year’s eve, I saw a transit policewoman with her drug dog. The dog looked in my direction, and I smiled, keeping myself in check to not approach, as my way with animals is unparalleled. She didn’t even notice, having her own animated conversation with another officer at their kiosk.
I wandered further, as it got later. The homeless were coming in for the night, some with possessions, others without. Some were seated on the floor, up against support posts, some on benches, huddled up against each other for warmth. Others were on foot, one older man with one leg shorter than the other, another rocking on the floor and humming to himself.
One woman drew a tattered dark coat closed as she leaned against her post for the night, about 25 feet from a row of takeout restaurants. With nobody in mind in particular, and even though I was hungry myself, I stopped at a soup stand and got an order of beef stew. I turned back to the elderly woman in the dark coat, approaching her with purpose, but didn’t know exactly what. I knelt down beside her and told her that I got this for her, handing her the white bag with the stew and four packs of crackers. She looked into my eyes with her ice blue, tired eyes, smiled in a toothless grin, and thanked me for my kindness.
At that moment, I was grateful that I had somewhere to go on that cold night, even though it was going to be quite delayed. I admired her for her strength and fortitude to live like she did year after year, without complaint.
I also never felt safer in Penn Station, where people were knifed, shot, mugged, or worse. I was the captain of my ship. This was the heart of New York City, and as I returned to where I was waiting for the train from Toronto, I was pleased that I encountered the people that I had, those down-and-out native New Yorkers, because they taught me something. They taught me that it was all right to be on their turf and that I was welcome, even though those specific words were not spoken. They spoke to me as an equal, which I really was.
So the next time that you see someone that is in Penn Station, you could be speaking to someone with a tainted past, or someone that is rich and famous. You never know.