April 13, 2005

The Body of The Story

Unlike NYC Beauty’s city stories, mine are old ~ gray at the roots by now, and just a little bit wrinkled. Still, they abound, and Jennifer has unknowingly inspired me to tell one today. The thing about a good story is that it ages but never dies.

When I was just eighteen back in 1973 I was working on Wall Street at a posh law firm. I was a receptionist, commuting twice daily to and from Staten Island by way of the famous nickel ferry.

By 7:00 a.m. Monday through Friday I was up, showered and dressed (no pants for this lawfirm, it was a suit or dress with heels at the very least). I’d leave my house and walk a block to the nearest bus stop, board the #103 ~ strap-hanging* it all the way to the ferry terminal. The 40 minute ride would get me there just in time to mill through the rush-hour cattle, pick up the New York Daily News - tossing a dime onto the counter - then rush toward the gates that would open at 7:50 to load up the 8:00 boat.

The terminal was decrepit with greenish tiles covering all the walls – the smell of the creosote that coated the pilings was strong and distinct – almost like a mixture of tar, gasoline and oil. It wasn’t, of course, but it smelled that way.

Everyone would shove their way through the gates as the deckhands slowly opened them. Once on the ferry, many of those lucky enough to get seats would cozy up with their Styrofoam coffee cups and daily newspaper. Some would just close their eyes for a much needed twenty-five minute nap. The “standers” would perform a balancing act of sorts, shifting from one leg to the other with coffee cup in one hand, briefcase tucked under the arm and an opened newspaper page held closely to their eyes.

The familiar quiet of the engines being cut was our signal that the boat was beyond Ellis Island and would soon be docking. Everyone would flood to the front of the boat, preparing to make a bee-line for their waiting bus, taxi, subway or bagel stand. From that point forward, for me, it was a hike up to Wall Street. I realized after cramming into subways and buses one too many times that I could get to work just as quickly by walking ~ and that I could take in the sights and sounds of this city I so loved, all along the way.

One very chilly autumn day, while making my way up Broad Street, I noticed some people moving to the side or hopping over something up ahead on the sidewalk. To form the proper visual, let me explain that Broad Street at 8:40 in the morning was a mass of wall to wall people on either side of the street, and yellow cabs or limousines covered the roadway. Walking along the sidewalk was quite similar to standing in line at a busy movie theater, but with everyone on line in constant and swift forward motion.

As I approached the obstacle, I realized people were stepping over or to the side of a street bum curled up close to the curb. There was no avoiding him unless you mowed down a few people in the process. I opted to step over him, as did several others near me. I noticed his clothing was typically disheveled and he had no shoes on. I was annoyed with his presence and just hoped no part of me touched his filthy and stinking body. As everyone else did, I moved on swiftly so as not to be late for work.

My building was located just around the corner from Broad Street at 40 Wall. I couldn’t wait to get indoors and away from the brisk wind. The elevator bay was filled with people, but somehow, I never minded the wait. Our lobby was beautiful. Lush marble covered the walls and floors and everything about the place always looked freshly polished and shiny.

I suppose what made arriving to work so attractive in those days was my nearly two-hour commute, mostly on foot. By the time I got to work, I was tired already ~ yet just facing the day. I was always glad to finally sit. Lunchtime was the highlight of my workday. It was then that you could walk the busy streets again, become part of the hustle and bustle taking in fresh air, and inevitably run into some old or new friend. I would often walk to the old Trinity Church to sit in the graveyard with a dirty-water dog (hot dogs sold off the vending carts). This day, however, was different.

I headed back down Broad Street to meet up with a friend for lunch. She worked at NYSE (Stock Exchange) and we shared the same lunch hour. While walking toward the restaurant we agreed to meet at, I noticed a sea of police cruisers, an ambulance and a couple of fire trucks up ahead.

Often times, movies or TV shows (like Kojak) were being filmed in this area, so I wasn’t concerned in the least, just troubled that I’d have to weave my way around them on my way to get lunch.

People working in the city will generally talk to perfect strangers about “happenings” in the street. It’s just that kind of atmosphere. As I approached the area, I could see the distinctive yellow crime scene tape around a section of sidewalk. I asked two men standing next to me at the crosswalk if they knew what was going on.

When they told me, I stood in disbelief for half a minute, my mouth hanging open.
“Apparently some homeless guy was found laying there dead about an hour ago,” said one of the men, “from what I gather, he was mistaken as a drunken bum just sleeping it off and left there for hours with people stepping over his body.” It was the man I had stepped over on my way to the office.

I did meet up with my friend, but apologized for my lack of appetite and headed back to the office. I felt quietly ashamed. I had stepped over a dead guy and my only thought at the time was “Eww, these bums gross me out.” How could I BE so insensitive? How could thousands of people have been so unfeeling?

I couldn’t get past my guilt and coldness for the remainder of that day. Who was this homeless guy? What was his story? How is it that his life ended – curled in a ball - dead on the street in such a vital, industrious, wealthy and worldly-important area such at Broad and Wall Street in downtown Manhattan?

I didn’t read my newspaper on the way home, nor did I stop for a hot pretzel (another ritual) at the ferry terminal. I never noticed the thousands of other people around me as I made my way from the boat to my bus. I was just happy to get to the security and comfort of my own home at the end of my day and to this very moment ~ I’ll bet that poor man wished he had been able to do the same.

*strap-hanging: standing in the aisle of a bus, train, subway, etc, clinging to the overhead strap for dear life amidst the rush-hour throngs (great way to tone the biceps)

28 Comments:

Blogger CarpeDM said...

Wow.

I had a feeling that's what happened when you mentioned the police cars.

It's hard to know how to react to the homeless. We don't see them often but every once in awhile you'll see someone on an off ramp. The problem is, it's so hard to tell between those who are genuinely in need or those who are trying to scam the passerbys (there's been several news stories about it).

I thank God everyday that I'm not in that situation and I have to tell you, there were times in my past that I was $20 away from being out on the streets.

I guess I'm not going to complain about the 20 minute bus ride anymore. I don't think I could have handled that commute.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Swifty said...

This is it. This is by far the best thing you've published to date. Your description of the commute and rush hour is unbelievable. You really ought to be a professional writer.

Thank you very much

8:21 AM  
Blogger Sask 1 said...

Well its understandable to feel that way especially when your young about the homeless.
You may never of known the man but im sure your wonderful description of that day might make someone reconsider when they see someone lying there.Its an excellent piece of writing Carol.
June

11:50 AM  
Blogger mrsmogul said...

Hey there, first time here. I hated commuting on the trains. I was fortunate to work near midtown near my apt a few times. I got married in NEw England! NY gal all the way but living in bleh..england for now.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Happy and Blue said...

You are a good writer.
I have never had a similar experience with a bum. I live in a small city so we know all the bums. Grew up with a lot of them. We watch out for them.
The story was very touching. I would like to think I would have stopped to check on him but in reality I probably would have just stepped over him as well..

2:07 PM  
Blogger NYCbeauty said...

Carol: Great post (and thanks for the link!). I think that these types of things happen to everyone in NY. We have always been told to stay away from scary people. I remember when I was little, right after the de-institutionalization of all of these metally ill people, some woman was on the church steps, crying and talking to voices that clearly weren't there. My mother hustled me away. I still remember that incident, as you do yours. But the fact of the matter is, it is NOT YOUR FAULT that this man got himself in that position. Don't blame yourself. Blame a society that has us stepping over bums rather than teaching us how to help.

3:32 PM  
Anonymous John said...

Wow Carol! Great post, and I must agree with Donswift. you should be a professional writer. :)

3:41 PM  
Blogger blue2go said...

Great story! We have homeless and/or bums on the streets. It's hard to know how to deal with them. Had a ragged guy put his face inches from mine only about a week ago. It was in the skywalk, I was alone and the hall was deserted. It was startling, to say the least. Often there are musicians with open cases playing. One time last fall I had no money, but asked the trumpet player if he wanted some cereal! He took all four boxes, said his kids liked it.

11:29 PM  
Blogger Lightning Bug's Butt said...

Amen. I've been trying to comment to this post ALL DAMN DAY!

Great post. But don't worry about that dead bum. It was his time.

He's in that Tavern in the Sky, where the top shelf is on the house and the tap flows with free beer.

12:52 AM  
Blogger Hick said...

Wonderful story. Reminds me of when I used to commute into San Francisco every day.

I would like to think that I would have stopped for the man, but I doubt it. I'm sorry for that.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Walker said...

This is a great story. I love your description of the journey to work everyday.
We become conditioned to the things we see on a daily basis and because you constantly see drunks sleeping on the sidewalks you had no way of knowing this was any different. You are not to blame for what happened to him and you were not the first to step over him or the last I'm sure.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Paul McDonald said...

I really enjoyed how you made it seem as though I was there in the story with you, giving details and painting a great picture.

6:08 PM  
Blogger dan said...

It's really sad when people end up as bums, let alone people stepping over their corpse in the street.

I wonder how many others felt the guilt you felt upon realising what had happened.

It's easily done though. We're all wrapped up in our own tiny lives, we forget about those who are most vulnerable.

That is the most moving thing I've ever read in blogger world.

1:17 PM  
Blogger brooksba said...

Carol,

This, as everyone seems to have said already, is a fantastically written post. You have a talent and I am so glad I found your site and read it.

When you first mentioned the bum, my thought was, "Well, he's either dead or you were wearing a skirt that he could look up." Don't beat yourself up (and I'm sure that the years have passed and you've gotten over it) for stepping over him. It's a society that taught this.

I love your posts.

Beth

3:11 PM  
Blogger GratisGab said...

Very, very well written. Wow, it's overwhelming to read it, I can imagine how you must have felt when you found out.

That was one long commute!!! I travel from Boston to Chicago every other week or so and it takes lesser time than that. Admirable!

3:23 PM  
Blogger katie said...

I always remind myself that I am a few missed paychecks away from being homeless. It can happen to so many people.
Its amazing how the daily grind can make us so unaware of the little things that are going on around us. I am sure I would have done the same thing. Great Post!

6:52 PM  
Blogger mrhaney said...

when i read you quote it reminded me of church. they teach in catholic school to help those in need for it is like helping JESUS himself.i looked this up on the computer , On the last day, Jesus will say to those on His right hand, "Come, enter the Kingdom. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you visited me." Then Jesus will turn to those on His left hand and say, "Depart from me because I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink, I was sick and you did not visit me." These will ask Him, "When did we see You hungry, or thirsty or sick and did not come to Your help?" And Jesus will answer them, "Whatever you neglected to do unto one of these least of these, you neglected to do unto Me!" that was a very good post and very interesting.

7:30 AM  
Blogger "AG" said...

Very well-written post.

One summer I worked at a SOHO restaurant (now closed) called Food. We were allowed to take some food home at the end of a shift. I rode the 6 train home and I usually gave my food away.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Denny Shane said...

Excellent post Carol! and thanks for stopping by and posting on my blog! I'm going to add you to the "Almost Normal Members of the Not So Normal Club!

7:36 PM  
Blogger L said...

how sad... I feel so lucky that I'm not homeless...

10:53 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I was going to summarize an experience I had - but I posted about it one time. Feel free to read - or not. Either way I empathize with your guilt and sense of "what should I have done differently"

**Please note my writing style is much more crude than Carol's and I use profanity a bit liberally - please do not follow if that might offend you**

My post.

1:25 PM  
Blogger TC said...

Liked the "103" bit...that route number brought back some fun memories.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Dave Morris said...

Carol, such a fabulous story. I so often look at people on the street and wonder what went wrong, when, and if there was anything they could have done to change it. It's easy to feel guilt about those things.

I'll bet people who work in soup kitchens drink a lot.

Thanks for sharing the story, I really enjoy reading you.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Green-Eyed Lady(GEL) said...

I read this earlier today but Blogger was constipated. Your blog is a delight to read.

When parenting, it's a difficult juggling task to tow that fine line. (I'm thinking of the dark alley part.) Your daughter's character is strenghtened not only by her hard work, but by her experiences, as you have clearly shown us. I, too, would like to shield my kids, but that would be a disservice to them.

I remember waitressing. It's one of the toughest jobs there is. How ironic that your 18 yr old also wants to go to art school like mine does. (Mine is going in-state to a fine program. We cannot afford the "hoity-toity" one, even if she worked double the hrs your daughter did.) Good luck to her!

11:01 PM  
Blogger Green-Eyed Lady(GEL) said...

OOps I think I commented on the wrong post LOL. Well, you will know which one that comment was meant to go on. Working double shift is showing on me.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Green-Eyed Lady(GEL) said...

Now that I've read this post, I'll appropriately comment on it. This is definitely a story meant to be retold. One can readily see why it has stuck with you for so many years. So many of us learn the hard way. What an eye-opener regarding unintentional apathy especially for an 18 -yr old. LIke others have said, you write very well!

11:08 PM  
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10:13 AM  

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