Nature vs. Nurture on the NYC Subway

by Jennifer Li Shotz
Originally Published: 

I rode the F train with my son, Emmett, and his best friend, Sadie, that late-winter day. Emmett had just turned 7, and for his birthday, I was taking the two of them to see Mary Poppins on Broadway.

They were big now—I didn’t hover or hold their hands. They stood apart from me, gripping the pole and staring off into the distance, like born and bred New Yorkers…until Sadie absentmindedly pressed her lips against the pole. After snapping a quick picture for her parents to document the source of whatever infection she had just caught, I made the kids sit down.

They settled into the molded plastic seats across the aisle from me. They chatted about whatever it was that 7-year-olds chatted about that year (this was pre-Rainbow Loom but post-Wow Wow Wubbzy). I watched them proudly. They were so mature, so self-assured and poised. Two wise kids growing up too fast in the big city.

A few minutes after they sat down—and still at least six or seven stops from our destination—the door at the far end of the car flew open with a clang. A man stepped through and paused, looking up and down the rows. As he sized up his audience, I assessed him: head-to-toe camo, cardboard sign hanging around his neck, cylindrical container in hand. I was going with homeless veteran.

Sure enough, he began telling his story as he made his way slowly down the aisle, weaving and bobbing with the movement of the train, ducking around the poles and tablet-bearing commuters. He tottered toward us, repeating his mumbled words, shaking his can.

No one in the car paid the man any mind. It takes a mutant ape with a half-severed limb giving away cash to get a regular subway rider to look up.

I, on the other hand, was starting to panic. Jesus, I thought, my mind working double-time as I watched him lumber closer to us. How am I going to explain this to the kids? I didn’t know what Sadie’s parents had told her so far about why some people have homes and others don’t. Or about mental illness and lousy social services and disgraceful care for our veterans. What would they ask me? What did they need to know about war? Would they be sad? Would they want to buy him lunch?

These were New York City kids—they’d certainly seen homeless people before. Emmett and I had talked about it a few times after we stepped over the guy who used to sleep on our corner. But this was more complicated—and suddenly, more intimate: The man had stopped directly in front of Emmett and Sadie, positioned exactly between me and them. Any one of us could have reached out to touch him.

I waited and watched, deciding to let it play out.

Up close, I could see that the man was in his fifties, and the handwritten sign he wore was crammed with so many shaky block letters (and a couple of hand-drawn American flags), it was barely legible. His clothes were clean but ill-fitting. His eyes were dull and sad, detached. He looked into the distance and began his oration again.

“I am a homeless veteran,” was the gist of it. “I served this country, and now I’ve been abandoned by the government. I’ve been left to fend for myself.” Apparently the sign was his list of bullet points.

I looked back at Emmett and Sadie. They were transfixed. They had stopped talking and pressed their mouths tightly closed. They shifted their eyes from the sign to his face and back again, bearing the expression of children who know they’re seeing something inexplicable but important. They held their hands on their laps. My heart swelled at the sight of their obvious empathy and compassion.

The man rattled the canister in his hand, and loose change danced loudly inside. I noticed then that it was a metal can designed to look like an oversized roll of Lifesavers—the kind you get for Christmas as a kid, stripy on the outside and filled with lots and lots of real candies.

The man finished his speech. No one moved. The kids’ eyes saucered in their faces. I saw that they wished they could help him, but they felt powerless, being kids, after all. They look sad, I thought, but at least we’ll have a starting point for a conversation.

I was too focused on the children to remember to give the man any money. Not one other person dropped a single dime in the can. The man looked around blankly, then shuffled down to the other end of the car.

As soon as he was a few steps away, Emmett turned to Sadie, his face full of emotion. I leaned forward, not wanting to miss a word. This will be good, I told myself. It’s beautiful really. It’s real. This is why we live in New York—so we can see life up close.

“Sadie!” Emmett said excitedly, gesturing with his head in the man’s direction. “That guy’s so luckyhe has a whole thing of Lifesavers!”

With that, the train lurched into a station. The doors sighed open, and the man stepped off, headed into the next car and began again.

photo: flickr/nyc urbanscape

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