Out of the Blue
I pushed the door of my
apartment open and merged into the movement of people on the busy sidewalks walking
purposely ahead, no eyes meeting, no smiles shared. The warm breeze touched my cheeks and
moved me along. The sounds of the city fell like hail from the sky and I knew I was far
The city had a way of waking me
up in the morning in spite of my dark sunglasses and slow-moving feet. I approached the
corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street where the subways rolled people onto
the sidewalk with the urgency of a rising tide.
I noticed the cups before
I saw him. The cups were fast-food discards, about a dozen of them, stacked on top of one
another. My eyes moved to a plastic Pepsi bottle at the bottom of the stack that was
filled with coins. A man sat against the wall of Carnegie Hall on a plastic mail bin,
holding up these cups as if building a tower. White-gray curls hung over his ears, wisps
of his Santa-like beard insulated his face and wide piano teeth yellowed with age
complimented his dark skin. I slowed down and watched him greet people with the politeness
of a Disney World guide as they put money into the top cup and watched it fall to the
bottom. There was something inviting about this mans smile, and although he was
dressed the part, he just didnt seem like the other homeless people Id seen.
After only a couple of weeks in
the city, I was already forming a daily routine of sorts. I adjusted my backpack and
headed toward the park. It was only a few blocks away but I did a lot of maneuvering
through New Yorkers who were oblivious to a wide-eyed tourist trying to jump into the flow
of movement on the streets.
The beeping cabs and blaring
horns faded into the distance as I turned into Central Park. I shifted into another level
of consciousness and my feet slowed down by an empty bench. I like it here, I thought, the
sun sending fine lines of light through the trees and resting on my face. My books, my
journal, my coffee and muffin fell into place by my side and a still quiet hung like a
Not all the benches were all
empty. I noticed feet moving beneath an old army-green blanket. I breathed in a cloud of
alcohol-scented air and suddenly a loud belch brought a woman upright on the bench. She
scratched her head and rubbed her eyes. I jumped, more out of curiosity than fear,
noticing her hair wild around her head, her cheeks wrinkled like walnuts and her caked-dry
eyes. I looked away but my brain registered the sights and sounds I tried not to see.
Someone sat down on another bench and blocked my view but I could still see inside this
homeless woman, this woman with sandstone eyes.
I recalled a time when we were
in New York years ago. Joey was very young and we had just come out of a play. We walked
by a homeless man asking for change. Joey had asked me, "How could you just walk by
him?" I searched for an answer--I didnt know why the American work ethic was
valued more than simple compassion. It was no accident that we were back again in New York
City, ten years after my sons poignant question.
I finished my coffee and took a
long walk along the park before I headed home. The hot sun peered over the buildings and a
steam from the pavement colored the air. As I approached 57th Street, I noticed
the cups again above the heads in front of me and watched the man with the cups drinking
the last of a bottle of water. He started getting his bags together and noticed me
glancing at him. "Have a great day," he said. I smiled and walked on and felt
his eyes following me. I stopped at the sidewalk vendor and walked back to him.
"Heres some lunch for you." I smiled slightly. "Just a bagel and some
"Thank you kindly. I was
just going to get something to eat." He tipped his hat at me, his smile pointing
upward toward his cocoa eyes. The breeze lifted my steps as I walked home.
Hes approachable, I
thought, not like other homeless people Id seen. His appearance was neat and clean
and he was so polite. I decided Id bring him another bagel the next time I saw him.
Saturday morning. The summer sun
eased between the buildings casting a faint glow on the morning streets. The man with the
cups wasnt on the corner. I wonder if he moved on, I thought, feeling a little
disappointed because I had gotten him some breakfast at the deli, but mostly because I was
looking forward to seeing him.
I went to the park for my
morning walk and the taste of the morning mist worked its way through my body. I felt my
body relax and my thoughts popped up and rolled around in my mind with the surge of a
breath mint. I kept thinking about my homeless friend. Although I had always gotten advice
like, "Dont give money, dont make eye contact, and watch your
purse," I just had this feeling that he was different somehow. His image lingered in
my mind like a movie you want to rewind and watch over and over again. I wondered how he
became homeless and how hard winters must be for him.
Many of my evenings were a
contrast to my mornings. My husband and I would go to a play or out to dinner, but now I
was sure to box up any leftovers and leave them in the park. I felt a little guilty about
the luxuries I had in my life--having a car that we left sitting in our garage in Ohio,
having a closet full of clothes that I didnt need, and living in a fancy apartment
in New York. My life was so easy, yet I had worked hard to get where I was. I didnt
know what it was like to be homeless, but I knew what it was like to live on a budget. I
grew up in a large family. My dad worked long hours and my mother worked as well. Although
I didnt feel poor, I knew that money wasnt readily available. I remember how
excited Id be just to get my sisters hand-me-downs or to eat a McDonalds
hamburger. But I had the opportunity to change my lifestyle because of my parents
strong work ethic and belief in education.
A few days later I saw my friend
on the corner as I crossed the street. Hes back, I thought, and I was glad I had
stopped to get him some breakfast.
"Hello there. Heres
some breakfast. Oh, how do you like your coffee?"
He adjusted his cap and his
sunglasses moved off his nose. "Any way I can get it," he said, pushing his
sunglasses back in place. He smiled with the ease of a child.
"Im Laurie." My
voice was light and upbeat. I held out my hand.
"Im J.C. Its a
pleasure to meet you, Laurie." His voice rolled out like musical notes.
I asked him if J.C. stood for
Jesus Christ and he laughed, saying no, it stood for James and Clinton, like the
president. My gaze fell on the cups and I fumbled for some change in my pocket,
recognizing that this was his trademark. I put it in the top cup and watched it fall to
the next and the next until it landed in the plastic bottle on the bottom.
"Thats pretty neat. How did you ever think of doing this, J.C.?"
"Well, it just kind of
happened. I didnt plan it." He sat up straight, proudly holding the cups out
high in front of him. "I used to just have a few cups to sort coins in, to keep
myself organized. After sitting out here in all kinds of weather, the bottoms of the cups
started to wear through so I started stacking them and the coins fell to the bottom. Kids
love them the most," he said with a crooked grin, "but even adults like watching
the coins fall to the bottom."
And sure enough, as he spoke, a
woman lifted her daughter up to put some coins in the top cup. "Thank you kindly,
little Isabelle." J.C. caught her eyes and her face lit up as she heard the clink of
coins fall to the bottom. "You have a great day now."
I was surprised that J.C. knew
her name. He looked at me as if anticipating my question. "I know lots of people here
by name. I knew Isabelle long before she was even born." He grinned to see if I
understood what he was saying.
My lips turned up slightly as I
thought Isabelle must be about two or three. "I guess youve been here awhile,
"For four years, four long
years. Almost five, actually."
I thought about the past four
years of my life and couldnt imagine how his life must have been during that time. I
wanted to ask him some more questions, but someone else came up and started
talking to him. "Ill
see you tomorrow, okay?"
He raised his hand in
acknowledgment as I walked away. "Have a great one."
The next day he continued
talking about the cups, as if he just remembered we hadnt finished our conversation.
He pointed to the writing on the top cup. "I select my cups carefully. Restaurant
owners notice if I have their cups and they seem to appreciate the free advertising."
He continued to talk earnestly. "Youd be surprised how many people take
pictures of me and my cups. They ask me about them, just like you, sometimes wanting to
buy them from me." His animated face resembled a cartoon character. "One woman
offered me fifty dollars for my cups, said they were a work of sculpture and of course, I
couldnt turn her down!"
I laughed, thinking that only in
New York would this happen.
He leaned forward and held out
the cups to a person slowing down. I gave him a puzzled look, thinking he was being kind
of forward. He noticed my face and explained, "I try to make it as easy as I can for
my regular customers." His smile was as mischievous as a child eating candy.
"Now only the regular ones get this kind of service!" he added.
Regular customers? He talked as
if he was operating a business. But whoever heard of a panhandling business? His stories
could be part of a circus act, I thought. I stood there and watched him for awhile, amazed
by the slight smiles forming on the faces of people passing him by, the fleeting glimmer
in eyes and the slowing down of footsteps. His presence captivated the most unsuspecting
pedestrians to turn their heads. I wasnt alone in noticing him--everyone else did
I felt comfortable talking to
him and my apprehension about homeless people seemed to dissipate. He had a way of putting
me at ease, as if he had invited me over for tea.
Since I started going over to
the park, I had had several encounters with homeless people. At Columbus Circle, I noticed
a gray-haired woman conversing with her outstretched leashed dogs. She delivered coos and
caahs to them yet her face ached of wanting more recognition than her dogs could give her.
A tenacious, robust
homeless woman must have noticed
her the same time as I did and volunteered, "Your dogs are so cute!" in a high
and spirited voice. The old womans face lit up. This woman finally has a chance to
talk about her dogs, her life, I thought. And who takes the time to ask her--a homeless
But another time I was sitting
on a bench, very intent in my writing and not aware of what was going on around me. I was
jarred into awareness when an old, scraggly-looking man approached the bench and sat down
close to me. He spoke loudly into my ear, "Write hockey stick." I shook my head,
not even looking at him and just continued to write. I was involved in my writing and was
just hoping hed realize that and leave. "Write hockey stick," he demanded
even louder. I shook my head. Finally he yelled, "What the hell is wrong with hockey
stick?" I looked at him, suddenly aware of his presence. My gut registered an
impending danger so I quickly packed my things together and left without looking back.
That evening my thoughts were unsettling. On one
hand I felt very compassionate and on the other hand I felt afraid. The "hockey
stick" man had frightened me and I knew I should be more cognizant of my
surroundings. J.C.s warm demeanor and unobtrusive manner felt unthreatening to me,
but I had to remember that he still was a stranger to me in a city I didnt know. I
fell asleep, knowing I wanted to understand how and why he became homeless.