First, on my way downtown the other day, I walked through the tunnel at the Port Authority which leads to the 1,2,3,4, J,M and Z trains. The tunnel's very long and, to my surprise, there was a wall of professionally made posters announcing "Jews for Jesus" in pop culture-like script. I hadn't realized they'd become such a large and/or slick marketing organization because it sure takes a lot of dollars to pay to create that kind of brand awareness. Ironically--and this was my first odd sight--there was an African American homeless man standing halfway into in the tunnel chanting "Jesus saves....Jesus saves...Jesus...Jesus...Jesus saves" like a broken record to the swarm of commuters who swung out religiously to avoid any contact with him.
On my return, I saw my second profoundly disturbing sight. It was an old Chinese woman sitting in the tunnel (the black guy was gone) begging. She was clutching a polysterene coffee mug that served as her begging bowl and had once been a handsome woman, was relatively well-groomed and dressed--clad in a bamboo leaf pattern blouse and those tight black slacks one associates with Chinese women--and I pulled up short at a discreet distance to observe her, so surprised was I by the sight. I have never seen a Chinese woman beg in the streets of New York. I had never seen a Chinese woman or man begging in any western city. I could not imagine what circumstances had occurred in her life to bring her to the grimy place.
As if some kind of dark fate or eye of stark truth (I wasn't sure which, then) was swarming around me that morning, I encountered my third spectacle near the Helmsley Building in midtown. One should bear in mind the magnificence of this building, with its ornate architecture and elegant brass clock and motiff. Near where one crosses the very wide Park Avenue halfway there is a median replete with grass and trees. I looked toward the median and, to my surprise, there was an elderly man, clearly homeless becaused of his grimy clothing and unkempt Moses-like hair (Think Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments). He was clutching a thick book, and every ten seconds or so, he would raise it toward the sky and shout something as if he were calling on God.
After I'd crossed the Avenue, I stopped and looked around. Everywhere, there were well-shod business people hurrying along or standing in little groups conferring about business deals, contracts, God only knows what but I'm sure money was involved, lots of it...and this man was calling to God. Not a single person, other then myself and a couple of tourtists, was looking at him. Clearly he was mad, perhaps had himself been a businessman at one time, perhaps had even worked in the sumptuous Helmsley Building from where Leona had or perhaps still does hold court, perhaps he'd never been anything and had been relesed from an asylum.
Of all the sights though, the one of the dignified Chinese grandmother begging was the most disturbing. Why? It's to do with a number of factors. First, there was the intensely conflicted look of shame, resignation and absolute need written on her face that wrenched my heart, and she wasn't yet a veteran of the streets because surprise at the cold indifference of people still registered in the rapid blinks and creases of her brow. And secondly, I knew in my gut that Chinese-Americans never beg, and the fact this woman was doing so was proof positive that the middle class, the backbone of American society, is in deep trouble in these United States.
[technorati: new york city, america, usa, homelessness, helmsley building, middle class