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Another Way                             
Individual  Advocacy   
Have a Great One!
A Homeless Man's 

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1   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 from home.

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 man’s smile, and although he was dressed the part, he just didn’t seem like the other homeless people I’d 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 tarp overhead.

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 didn’t 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 son’s 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. "Here’s some lunch for you." I smiled slightly. "Just a bagel and some coffee."

"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.

He’s approachable, I thought, not like other homeless people I’d seen. His appearance was neat and clean and he was so polite. I decided I’d 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 wasn’t 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, "Don’t give money, don’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t feel poor, I knew that money wasn’t readily available. I remember how excited I’d be just to get my sister’s hand-me-downs or to eat a McDonald’s hamburger. But I had the opportunity to change my lifestyle because of my parent’s strong work ethic and belief in education.

A few days later I saw my friend on the corner as I crossed the street. He’s back, I thought, and I was glad I had stopped to get him some breakfast.

"Hello there. Here’s 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.

"I’m Laurie." My voice was light and upbeat. I held out my hand.

"I’m J.C. It’s 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. "That’s pretty neat. How did you ever think of doing this, J.C.?"

"Well, it just kind of happened. I didn’t 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 you’ve been here awhile, J.C?"

"For four years, four long years. Almost five, actually."

I thought about the past four years of my life and couldn’t 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. "I’ll 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 hadn’t 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. "You’d 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t alone in noticing him--everyone else did too.

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 woman’s 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 person!

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 he’d 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 didn’t know. I fell asleep, knowing I wanted to understand how and why he became homeless.