I didn’t smell him before I saw him. Under the glow of the fluorescent lights, I looked up from my iPad when the homeless man slowly entered my peripheral view, slowly rolled his belongings and sat across from me at the end of a car on this uptown A train. Another woman waited for the next stop to make a move a couple seats down.
I wasn’t bothered. Strangely, my nose sniffed something like fresher laundry, not pee that would dampen my mood through my alerted senses. I decided to stay put. Through nonverbal communication, I wanted to tell this man his presence didn’t bother me. He was quiet and he seemed tired like I was, except I was returning from a flight from a sunny locale and he probably escaped the New York cold all day by staying underground.
He wasn’t begging for money. His “trash,” an empty foil plate that was his faux recycle silverware, fell to the ground. We were both holding onto two hastily packed items that wheeled with the movement of the subway electricity — except his were shopping carts and mine were a suitcase and tote. A few protein bars were stashed in my belongings because even though I barely miss a meal, I get concerned sometimes that my stomach will growl or I will feel weak. I end up munching on them when I don’t even need it.
I don’t always give money to the homeless; I tend to volunteer my time and skills as service work. Often times, the negative assumption is that the handout will be turned into cigarette or alcohol money. Besides, I am pretty broke myself (but at least I have a bed). But this man, whose backstory remains a mystery, reminds me anyone could lose the roof above their heads or fall into a rut. We’re all human, and life happens to bring us good fortune and challenging circumstances.
By the time I neared my stop, I took a protein bar out of my bag and held it in my hand. Right before the doors opened I asked, Do you want this? He didn’t have time to respond out of the blue but I could see the answer in his eyes. So I placed it above whatever was in his garbage bags and stepped onto the platform.
I felt guilty in my ascent towards my apartment. I guess I could have given him all three beneficial bars that commercialism has made into cost-incurring purchases. When I visited Korea as child, I walked past older women sitting on the subway stairs selling gum in exchange for a donation. It made me sad it could be my grandma as I dropped my coins into their collection. Now I chew away at the thought that I’m blessed because I will probably never starve.
I’ve done some volunteering at soup kitchens, but we could always do a little more. Even the offer of a smile is better. Despite socio-economic situations, we are all human. If we have a bed, let’s try to be a little more conscious and compassionate before we take in the comfort of a good night’s sleep.