I had the absolute luxury yesterday of having a day off from work, and my life, to spend a day in New York City with a girlfriend. My love affair with the Big Apple began early in my life. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, and every weekend, would make the trip in the family station wagon to visit my Grandparents in New York. They lived in Maspeth, Queens. Even as a child I loved city life, the huge mass of people constantly bustling along the streets, the whir of the traffic and ever present horn honking. The hot dog street vendors, and where else but NYC can you buy a soft pretzel bigger than your head! As a child, I rode the subway, went to Macy’s Herald Square, went to Rockefeller Center to see the Rockettes strut their stuff for the holiday shows, and sat in the audience watching Broadway shows in which I realized being on stage was what I longed for most in life.
My friend and I yesterday, went to a place I somehow missed in my childhood trips to the City and as an adult when I lived in New York – the top of the Empire State building. It was AMAZING! We then drank wine, ate scrumptious sushi and later sat in the audience watching a friend’s off Broadway one man show. The festivities continued with more friends, an Irish pub, followed by an awesome dive bar on a beautiful, rainy New York night.
The down side of the evening for me was knowing I had to take a train home… a 3am Amtrack train. I am lucky that I seem to require little sleep, but wasn’t looking forward to spending time alone in Penn Station at such a crazy hour in the morning. I arrived around 2am to the station, exhausted, but filled with the joy from the exciting day in the city. Here is where the excitement of New York City ends, and the reality of a city filled with so many neglected people begin. Penn Station at 2am looks like this: dozens of people are sleeping on the floor, most of them, not waiting to catch the next train to New Haven or Boston. This is where they sleep. I am sure they usually sleep outside, but it was a cold, rainy night. This is where they use the bathroom. This is where they sort through the trash cans for scraps of uneaten Starbucks yuppie wraps or Sbarro Pizza crusts. This is where they ask more fortunate people for money.
I was down to my last few dollars and did not want to travel without any cash, but was torn to give a boy my last few dollars when he asked. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. He was a thin, very handsome young man with shoulder length, greasy, wavy brown hair, he also looked and smelled like he hadn’t showered in a few days. He carried a frayed gray backpack that was bulging and ripped at the seams. As the passengers left the waiting area to board the train, this boy appeared and approached almost every single ticket holder in line: “Do you have a few bucks to spare?” When he asked the casually dressed couple standing next to me why everyone was waiting… the husband responded, we are going to board the train on track 17. The boy responded, “Oh, I live under track 17.” The boy moved along the line, and as he walked away, the couple broke out in laughter. I was sickened at their laughs. Does he really live in Penn Station? What did he mean he lives UNDER track 17? Where are his parents? Does anyone love him? Did he drop out of school? Is he mentally ill?
I wasn’t able to stop thinking about this boy throughout the ride home. I thought, as I added up my receipts from my big splurge in the City, wow… I am so lucky. I am not at all wealthy, as a single mother struggling to make it. I wondered what is going to happen to the boy in Penn Station… did he have a meal today? Will he be able to make something of his life?
I also was so angry at that damn couple for laughing at that boy. Had they never needed help from anyone? Have they ever been not able to pay their bills / mortgage? How close could they come to being homeless? I don’t find it funny. Homelessness is not funny at all.
In our country full of box stores and flat screen televisions, we sometimes lose sight of how much we have. We are a society with so much and yet we are so miserable. We ignore or laugh at people around us that are suffering from mental illness or that are poverty stricken. Be grateful if you have a roof over your head tonight and a bed that’s warm. They are people in our wealthy country that are not so lucky.