Art by http://johnturck.tumblr.com/
A homeless man lies curled up on his side along the sidewalk outside of St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, sucking on his thumb. He’d barefoot, with black skin covered in small pink dots that ride up along his ankle, maybe continuing on along his legs underneath his stained brown sweatpants. It’s lunchtime, and the Park Avenue crowd is pushing past one another. Everybody in their slim fit suits are trying to stuff one more bite into their maw, one more cocktail, and in between the bites and sips, deliver one more anecdote to a business contact on the company dime. The taxis, town cars, and delivery trucks honk and negotiate for consideration when the light turns green, and a woman in giant sunglasses haphazardly stumbles in high heels across the street, holding a cell phone to her head with her right hand, and extending her left as if she could stiff arm rogue vehicles; protected by a force field of confidence and privilege.
The homeless man sucks his thumb as if it had been holding out on him. His jaw works away, in and out, with his right cheek becoming a dome, then a valley, then a dome, then a valley. Eyes closed, he can’t be reasoned with. Can’t be told that he’s never going to get what he needs. There is no milk, or rum, or money, or love in that thumb, and I can’t tell if he’s even awake. Nobody comes over to shake him back into reality. What would they do once they got his attention? Where would they send him? He looks scared, but doesn’t look for help. The homeless man sucking his thumb knows that he’s too far gone for advice, if he even speaks English.
St. Bart’s has a restaurant. Fine dining, under a glass canopy, protected from the elements. It’s a place where the heirs of millionaires throw weddings, and where some of these businessmen and women throw down lobster rolls and $15 cocktails. They’ve got Tuna Tartare Tacos and Goat Cheese Croquettes. An Angry Calamari Salad. Steak Frites and a Jumbo Crabcake. You can see the white tablecloths from the sidewalk, and the well dressed diners know they can be seen without having to see what goes on outside.
The homeless man sucking his thumb picked the wrong neighborhood. Picked the wrong church. There is no Jesus in that building behind him; only a tax shelter. Their moneyed tentacles of public service could stretch throughout the city, but they wouldn’t touch the man outside their door. It’d be the poorer churches that would take him in, or the poorer neighborhoods where people might help.
This was the wrong spot for compassion, but a great place to make a little money, so long as he knew how to play the part. The doors to the church are open, and people walk in and out, but they give a wide berth to the man on the sidewalk. Across the street and a few blocks up there’s a white man with a cardboard sign saying he needs a hand. His cup is partially full. I’ve passed an immigrant woman and watched as people handed her a folded up dollar bill. There’s a pregnant woman at 56th street with her head held down and her legs crossed, refusing to make a sales pitch more complicated than the bump on her lap and the track marks in her arm, and her cup has run over with guilty money.
The homeless man sucking his thumb in front of St. Bart’s doesn’t have a cup, and his sweatpants don’t have pockets. All he owns is his thumb, and the darkness that greets him when he closes his eyes.