In a panic I went to AutoZone and the guy behind the counter fixed the light for me. It didn’t cost much, but my nerves were fried. My car, which I loved dearly, was becoming less of a necessity and more of a luxury. I wasn’t driving to White Plains daily anymore. Sometimes I only drove to move it to the opposite side of the street, and because I got to see my car less, I worried about it more.
I would go outside in the middle of the night to make sure it was okay. I worried about gas. I worried it would get stolen. And I was still driving around with Connecticut plates. Transferring the insurance from Connecticut to New York would’ve tripled my payments. I could barely afford what I was already paying.
And, expensive as it was, my car was my only escape.
My anxiety was getting worse, so I did whatever I could to distract myself. I spent more time with the boys instead of hanging around the apartment alone. I filled out job applications. I slept. I wrote. I took pictures. And when I could afford it, I decorated my room with flowers.
|Pretty flowers from New York streets|
I could buy a bunch of purple orchids for $5 and keep them blooming for nearly a month. Same with asters and white lilies. I occupied myself with pruning and trimming, with changing the water every day and knowing I was keeping something beautiful alive.
It made me feel good, to open my bedroom door and be greeted with the sweet smell of lilies. It made it almost worth it to come home.
When I saw her, she was begging for change on the Washington Bridge. She was so skinny, thin and frail in a way that made me worry for her. Sure, she could’ve had substance abuse issues. She could’ve been a con artist, a liar. But from my experience I also knew she could easily have had unaddressed mental health issues. She could all alone in the world. She could been LGBT and had nowhere to go, or one of the victims of shelter overflow.
Or she could’ve simply been hungry.
As I sat in traffic on the bridge, I dug through my purse for cash to give her. I knew I had a couple of dollar bills in there, a rarity for me, but I couldn’t find them. My mother always told me she hated the type of slouchy purses I used for that very same reason, because they’re impossible when you’re trying to find something in a hurry. I couldn’t find the cash.
When she approached my car I apologized to her through the glass profusely. She smiled sadly and gave me a nod that said she understood, and moved onto the next car. Traffic started to move but only slightly.
At a standstill again, I searched my purse. I knew I had cash in it, and it bothered me that I couldn’t help. After a few seconds I finally found it. Three dollars cash. I rolled my window down. I waved a dollar in the air and honked my horn, but she was too far behind me to notice.
I stuck my head out my window and yelled. Other drivers noticed me and honked too. A driver two cars behind me waved the window, but she still didn’t notice. I was ready to take my seat belt off and step out of my car, but just as I went for the button traffic started to move.
And it moved. And then traffic kept on moving like there had been no traffic jam. I took a left at the green light onto Amsterdam. And then I took another left seamlessly onto the FDR Drive.
I cried. ” You couldn’t let me just give her a dollar, could you?”I yelled in the empty car. “You couldn’t let me help a little, just this once? There’s little more than metal and glass separating her from me.”
“Why is she the one out begging on the bridge? I am no better than her.”
I sobbed so hard that I almost side-swiped the car next to me, and I had to force myself to get it together. I drove, tears in my eyes to my friends who were waiting for me with dinner.
Homelessness and poverty are as visible in New York as taxi cabs. They’re also as easy to forget and ignore as the air we breathe. Even now I can stand in the middle of Union Square park and watch a lavish party being thrown mere feet away from people in filthy clothing begging for change. Sometimes when I walk home on 5th Avenue I see people sleeping in sidewalks.
One guy sleeps out of his wheelchair.
There was another man I saw late at night when I drove. I recognized him after a couple of times. He used to break dance at the bottom of exit 3 into Third Ave in the Bronx. I didn’t notice him at first. Never ended up first in line at the end of my drive. But one night when I was the only car on the road, I saw him there, dancing, hands rubbing on the asphalt and broken glass doing handstands long after midnight. Everything clicked into place. I wondered if he was there always, if the bottom of that exit at the light was his home. I didn’t know. I didn’t ask. I gave him whatever cash I had. It wasn’t much.
Todd warned me once when he saw me cry. “There’s a lot of con artists out there,” He told me, and then proceeded to tell me a story of one night when, with no cash and waiting for the train, he shared a chicken meal with a hungry man. “You know what’s the best thing about late night chicken?” Todd relayed what the man said as they ate together. “It’s late night chicken!”
If only we all could be so kind.
I saw her twice again. The second time I drove on the right lane as she stood all the way to the left. She looked burned. The third time it was during a parade. I don’t remember which one. She stood there, away from traffic on the corner, talking to a man just as malnourished as her. They both looked sad. She stood to the right, I had to turn a left.
Shortly after that, I stopped driving. Later, much later, I had to give up my car. But that wasn’t why. I stopped living in that part of the Bronx and started taking the train, and as much as I think of her, I never saw her again.