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New York Street Scenes

by Michele Myers,

Author of Fugue for the Right Hand


I live on Riverside Drive near Columbia University, right across Riverside Park and the Hudson River. It is quiet here, the silence broken in the afternoon by the voices of children playing in the park. Only a block East, Broadway teams with Columbia students, faculty, and staff from all over the world, and you can hear a multitude of languages spoken on the wide sidewalks and the restaurants near campus. Other “regulars,” who more or less make Broadway their home, are the older men and women who sit on the church steps, or on the sidewalk in front of a grocery story, or simply stand and hold their hand out.

There is the old man who stands at the corner of 116th and Broadway, or in front of Morton Williams, the local grocery store. He is there every day, and he sings. Once when I passed him as he was singing, he pointed at his throat and said: “Do you think this is easy?” and he smiled. He has few teeth, all of them dark brown. He is thin and stoops, and his clothes are an assortment of discolored grayish, brownish shirt and pants, a rope for a belt, and flip flops in all seasons. He sometimes wears a wool jacket with tears in the sleeves. All of it grungy. When I give him a couple of bucks he is always effusive with thanks. If I pass him by and simply nods, he nods back with a grin and continues his own mumbled monologue. He has been on that corner for over thirty years.

There is the large woman who wears layers and layers of clothes, of all colors and shapes, and who talks out loud all the time. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t hold her hand out. She just glares at you, and tells you she needs money. If you don’t give her any, she tells you to go to hell.

There is the man who has a cart with him and sits on the steps of the church pretty much every day. He doesn’t talk, he has a paper cup in front of him, and when you drop some coins in it, he doesn’t look at you but says thank you.

What do they do when the weather is stiffling or freezing cold? Where do they go?

It was their faces I saw when I began to write Fugue for the Right Hand, the story of a bum who sleeps on a park bench and a woman who teaches at Barnard and Columbia. What would they have to say to each other, I wondered, and how could their back stories make their encounter plausible? Because, most of us, in fact, don’t get tangled up with bums in the street. Most of us don’t know their stories. We can’t even seem to imagine who they might have been before they became homeless. At best we give money and look the other way. But some people actually get involved. A friend of mine told me that a woman she knows who lives on Riverside Drive, befriended a homeless man who slept in the park, took him to her apartment, helped him with food and clothing, and drove him to a program in upstate New York that provides shelter, food, and job training so homeless men and women can get back on their feet again.

Fugue for the Right Hand is a work of fiction. I am not a politician, nor a journalist, nor a public policy expert. I don’t know how to solve the problem of the homeless in our cities. I wish I had a clue for how to reduce the vast economic gap that exists in front of our eyes, right where we live. I am a writer. And I wrote a fable.

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