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A Small Instance of Humanity: Part Deux

January 13, 2011

It was a nippy day and I was walking down the street in full combat gear: undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, second long-sleeved shirt, long overcoat, pair of gloves one and two, boots and a softly knit hat that makes me almost look fashionable.   I was nearly at the Ritz camera store when I saw them; him on the ground, surrounded in dark blankets that almost matched the slate of the sidewalk, and her, blond, preppy, pretty, young.  I made the instant assumption that most people make when they see a homeless guy talking to a bystander: I figured he was asking her for money and she was doing the delicate, emotional dance of retreating with her sense of self-goodness and wallet intact.  She was even physically moving back and forth, saying something to him as she backed closer to the door of the cafe she was trying to enter.   I mentally girded myself to do the same (why is there no good, easy solution to homelessness?  Why does the stomach sink every time one is confronted with the moral dilemma of whether to give or not to give, despite its frequent occurrence?) and prepared to pass him when I got close enough to hear their words.

“They don’t have muffins, I’m afraid. Do you want a bagel instead, perhaps?”

“Oooh, that would be nice.”

“What kind do you want?”

“Do you think they have sesame?  I love those little sesames.”

“Me too!  I’m sure they’ll have that.  Want it with cream cheese?  Toasted?  And what do you want to drink?”

“Toasted is fine, fine.  Thanks for askin’.  And a hazelnut coffee, if you don’t mind.  I haven’t had hazelnut coffee in a good while.”

She went into the shop, the little bell tinkling, her sneakers from her workout making no noise on the pavement.  He smiled slightly from underneath his black hat, his worn face creased.  He closed his eyes and sighed.

I kept on walking, glad to have witnessed the encounter, but feeling inescapably humbled.  Almost shamed.  I kept on walking, turned the corner.  I made it to the camera store; it was closed.  I started on my way back home, and when I got back to that spot, there she was, sitting next to him.  They were both drinking the coffee and laughing, the young, blond yuppie and the old, black homeless man, sharing a love of sesame bagels and an instinct for mutual respect.

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