I do not know her name, but someone in such a desperate situation deserves to at least have an elegant name. The first one that comes to my mind is Chantelle.
Her skin is a shade lighter than that of a raven’s and to the touch it is as coarse as a scouring pad. With the texture of a household broom, her hair looks as though it’s been whipped through a thousand windstorms. People are not mesmerized by her voice when she speaks; instead they recoil at the sound of its tone. When she moves, that is when she has the strength to move, it is with the grace of a boxer past his prime, badly beaten after seven excruciating rounds. She has just emerged from a very long winter, but unlike a strong and mighty bear who has been treated to months of restful slumber she has war stories to tell. Her home is not a peaceful den tucked away in the woods. It is the harsh streets of New York City. Welcome to Chantelle’s world, an existence consumed wholly by her fight to stay alive. At the end of the day there are no glorious tales of victory to tell. All she has to show for her struggles are her endless scars of battle.
To the casual observer we are only across the street from one another, but to me we are worlds apart. Where she sits, it can’t be more than thirty-three degrees outside on this late March evening. Inside Goal Posts, the Manhattan sports bar where I have chosen to grab a snack, it’s a climate controlled sixty-nine. For warmth, Chantelle has only a green garbage bag upon which to rely. I’ve just taken off my leather jacket for some relief from the heat. This woman must battle these streets on a daily basis. I’m here for a week’s vacation. Tonight, Heaven and Hell have collided on the corner of West 47th and 7th.
From where I’m seated I have a perfect view of where Chantelle will spend part of her evening: against a construction company’s makeshift wall, crumpled and tossed aside like a piece of paper. I can’t hear what she’s saying to passerby’s, but I have an idea. “Could you help someone down on their luck?” “Could you spare some change for a coffee?” “I have no home and I haven’t eaten all day…please help.” It’s a cry people like her sing out every day; a disheartening hymn you pray you’ll never have to repeat.
Most of the people who walk by do that and nothing more. With eyes fixed straight ahead they hope that by pretending not to hear or see her, she’ll just go away and leave them alone. As I continue to stare out the window, I see my own reflection glaring back at me, as if I were questioning my own refusal to have seen, to have heard, and to have helped otehrs like her in the past. Growing up I was always told to stay away from street people; they were just dirty bums who got what was coming their way. Looking at her, though, I can’t imagine any sin great enough to warrant such a punishment.
All of a sudden a man stops to give Chantelle some change from his pocket. He kneels so that they can make eye contact and then he says something. I wish I could hear what he is saying. Is it something as simple as “Here you go” or something more heartfelt, such as “I wish I could do more”? Out of the dozens who have already passed, he is the first to try and offer any sort of help or solution. Why is he willing to see what so many others refuse to acknowledge, I wonder. At what point in his life did he realize that this tragedy is everyone’s responsibility? That the homeless aren’t just a collection of crazy, lazy fools with no pride, but rather they are just like us: ordinary humans? When did he begin to see them with compassion and understanding?
Shortly thereafter he leaves and Chantelle is then approached by two police officers. They ask her to move along and she complies. The men in uniform probably feel that they’re only doing their jobs. Tourists don’t want to see homeless people when they come to New York, they may be reasoning, that’s too depressing. So they get the Chantelles of the city to move along to someone else’s beat. Just sweep them under the carpet, like the rest of society’s ills.
Will I see more people like Chantelle during my time in the Big Apple? Likely. Will I do anything about it while I’m here, or when I return home and finally take notice of the issue in my own backyard? I hope so. Oh how I hope so.