It was 17 degrees last weekend in New York City, but the New Yorkers I met were warm, even the one huddled on the street asking 5th Avenue shoppers for some help.
New Yorkers get a bad rap for being pushy, brash, cold and aggressive, but Karen and I discovered warmth that could melt the icy puddles forming on the cold city streets.
The woman at the front desk of the Intercontinental New York Barclay hotel greets us as if we are royalty and, after discovering that we are celebrating my friend’s birthday, she upgrades us to a larger room. The concierge cheerfully makes us brunch reservations at a tony spot around the corner, and the waiter doesn’t bark or roll his eyes when I meekly ask that eggs be prepared to my liking rather than the chef’s.
At Valebella’s, the waiter orchestrates us through dinner, snapping photos until we find one that doesn’t make us look too old or too heavy. His patience and humor are endless as we debate the lighting and backdrop, discussing the vain woes of getting older. When we finish the courses he suggests, he gathers a few of his buddies, presenting an Italian delicacy with a candle, and they surround us singing an Italian version of “Happy Birthday. ” The warmth of the cheerful singing quartet could melt the creamy custard inside the layers of flakey pastry. One of the beautiful hostesses (or maybe manager?) is so effusive in her thanks for our patronage, you’d think we are somebody.
Brunch the next day at The Smith is as the concierge describes- local, high-energy and really good. The place is mobbed, and we are lucky to get a table. We are luckier to get the waiter who is chill in the chaos and warm in his heart. There isn’t a hint of disdain for the out-of-towners invading the local spot. He gives us pointers and offers suggestions for entertainment. He turns us on to a same day Broadway ticket broker, and hands us a list of fun, local places to check out. He sends us off with a bag of chocolate chip cookies the size of frisbees, weighed so heavily with chocolate chunks, they feel more like a discus.
The guy at the same day ticket broker – Today Tix -is helpful, extremely so. Even though they don’t have the tickets we want, he stops and helps us. We end up with amazing seats dead center orchestra, five or six rows back and the Times Square ticket broker who sells them to us is as thrilled as we are.
Karen has an abscess tooth and can’t make the evening performance of “A Bronx Tale” at the Longacre Theater. The pain of her toothache is far worse than the pain of tossing away a two-hundred-dollar ticket. But all is not lost. Instead of telling me “too bad,” the theater sends me away with a rain check for a future performance.
Am I in heaven or New York City?
The next day I venture out while Karen tries to sleep through the throbbing of her tooth. As I walk onto 5th Avenue, I spot a young man on the street. He’s shouting something like “please help, this is embarrassing, anything you can do…” I’m cold in my full-length mink coat and Dr Zhivago mink hat. I see he’s got on a light jacket and his hands are red and chapped, exposed to the frigid air. I hesitate and decide to come back. My conscience nags at me…
He’s still there when I return from shopping at Saks. I can’t ignore him, I just can’t. And I can’t walk by him with blinders of apathy like others are doing. He’s a human and he’s hurting.
“Hi.” He looks up a bit surprised that someone is actually speaking to him. He smiles.
“What’s your story?” I ask because I know he has one and I want to hear it. I want to validate him and let him know someone cares.
“My dad died. He’s my only family, I lost my job, and my landlord threw me out and tossed out all my things.” There but for the grace of God go I, I’m thinking.
I look at his hands that are so red and raw they hurt me. “Do you have any gloves?” I ask, although it’s a stupid question because if he had any, he’d be wearing them in the Arctic temperature.
“I’m okay,” he replies and he’s smiling.
“I’m going to get you some gloves,” I tell him and I walk into the store he’s sitting by. I’ve got tears forming in my eyes because I can’t even fathom being as cold, hungry and alone.
“Do you have any gloves?” I ask a H&M salesman. He leads me to them.
“There’s a homeless guy outside and he’s cold,” I explain. “I want to get him something warm.” The salesman leads me over to a rack of insulated sweatshirts and helps me find a good one and tells me it’s on sale.
“Thanks for helping him out,” he says. “We’ve got to take care of each other,” I reply and I mean it.
When I pay for the clothes, the young man ringing me up says, “I’m going to give you a 15 percent discount.” He knows I am buying the things for a homeless man. I’m touched and I feel more tears in my eyes.
When I return with the things, I tell the young man to put the gloves on and he rips off the tags and puts them on his hurting hands as if his life depends upon it. It just might. Then he takes the bag of warm clothes. He’s thankful, grateful and he’s making my heart sing and break at the same time.
I’m bending down to speak with him because he’s still sitting on the street. “Do you believe in God?” I ask. “Very much so, ” he tells me. Cold, homeless and alone and he’s not cursing God, he’s clinging to Him.
I peer into his sorrowful eyes, directly into his heartache, and I tell him I love him. We both tear up. A black man comes out of nowhere and places a plastic bag next to the boy. “Hey man, I brought you some soup.” He disappears as quickly as he appeared, as if he’s an angel sent from heaven.
I hand the boy some money and tell him things are going to get better. I pray it does when I walk away.
Karen and I are sitting in a restaurant again, and what we pay for the meal could feed 10 homeless. Our waiter at Fig and Olive is a prince. When he learns we’re visiting NYC to celebrate Karen’s birthday, he brings us complimentary glasses of rose champagne and then some decadent dessert with a candle.
We can’t eat all the food, Karen is still wobbly with tooth pain, so we ask a busboy with broken English to wrap it up so we can give it to the homeless man. I can’t understand him well, but Karen tells me he said, if he had the money, he’d give us ten dollars for the homeless man and I can tell he’s sincere and a bit sad that he can’t help. In his case, it truly is the thought that counts.
When we go back the young man is no longer on the street corner. But there are more cold and hungry people huddled up against buildings. I stop and place the food next to one. His head is resting on his hands and he can’t see me or the people walking past him. I touch him slightly and he looks up. “I brought you some food.” He looks up at me and smiles. “God bless you.”
I am grateful because I know that the homeless man’s blessing matters, and I know how much God has blessed me. And I know that all of us who have so much are called to help those who have so little.
I love New York.