Ray Duckler: While she suffered alone, I had a great time
One week after spotting a homeless woman in New York City, I wish I’d done more to ease her pain.
She lay under a blanket on Madison Avenue, shivering and crying, the city racing by, the high-end jewelry stores in the area creating a striking dichotomy.
Diamonds and precious gems, some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, my sister said, sat in display cases facing the avenue. Of course, there were no price tags showing dollar amounts.
Meanwhile, the homeless woman had a cup nearby, her savings account for the day, halfway filled with bills and change. The smallest bill I had was a 10, so I asked my sister if she had a few one-dollar bills. I took two of them and stuffed them into the cup.
Then we moved on, excited about what the city had to offer. The Big Apple is great when you have tickets to a pair of Yankees games, against the Red Sox, no less.
It’s great when you have seventh-row tickets to see Idina Menzel on Broadway, and when you see Toni Collette outside the theater and tell her you love her movies, and when you visit family during the Passover holiday and feel the closeness that comes with blood relations.
It’s not so good, I suspect, when you’re homeless and cold.
Later, during quieter times in New York, the sight of this woman brought my mind back to Concord, to the homeless problem we have here.
Bill Watson and his wife, Miriam, came to mind quickly. They were the directors at the South Congregational Church, one of two winter shelters in the city.
They retired after this past winter, leaving behind a body of work full of kindness and compassion. But like here, there and everywhere, the problem never seems to fade, no matter how much time and effort people like the Watsons put in.
The issue, of course, is a minefield, polarizing and political in nature. We hear what’s needed, like more sympathy and more empathy, more funding and services, more help for the alcoholics and the drug addicts.
And we hear the other side, that many homeless people are content being homeless, sucking off the system without trying to better themselves.
Recently, former Concord police chief John Duval was caught in a pickle when space behind Everett Arena and along the railroad tracks, between North Main Street and Stickney Avenue, were closed to homeless camps.
Suddenly, the local police were forced to be the bad guys, shooing the homeless away, pushing them to move when there was no place else to go.
Earlier this month, at a Concord City Council meeting, several homeless people testified about a 22-page plan from the mayor’s task force to end homelessness.
Solutions included an expanded Homeless Resource Center in Concord and more low-income housing. “I think it’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end of a conversation,” Mayor Jim Bouley said.
Some had trouble with this thought, though, saying the conversation should have started long, long ago. Concord’s cold-weather shelter program, after all, began 10 years ago, created to ease suffering in the short term, not solve the problem over the long haul.
And now, both the South Church and First Church, the other big-hearted shelter in town, are re-evaluating how much longer they can remain open.
Meanwhile, the faces and stories of the homeless surface, in big cities like New York, and small ones like Concord.
For me, a recent column I wrote on a homeless man named Kevin Clark took the harshness from the topic. Clark plays sweet chords on his guitar at the entrance to Eagle Square, and his quick smile and affable nature made me forget what he experiences each January.
Clark, once married, has three kids. He was raised in Pembroke, once dreamed of playing music professionally, loves Bon Jovi and Gordon Lightfoot, and loves the summer.
The woman I saw on Madison Avenue?
All around her, jewelry stores – Cartier, Links of London, Elizabeth Locke – rose into the sky, blocking the sun and adding to her chill. Men in razor-sharp suits and white gloves stood guard inside, in front of diamonds encased in glass.
The woman’s skin was dark and leathery, and her body shook uncontrollably beneath a brown blanket.
Unlike Clark, I didn’t ask the woman who she was, what she once did for a living, if she ever married, if she had kids. I was on vacation, enjoying family time, not digging for a good human interest column.
Instead of giving her that 10-dollar bill, a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, I chose to drop two one-dollar bills into her cup. She heard me approach and lifted her head, about 6 inches off the pavement.
She opened her eyes slowly, like a sleeping cat suddenly awakened by a bright light.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re welcome,” I said, before walking to a restaurant for a nice dinner.