I was just rousted off the floor of Grand Central Station by two cops, one of each race. It didn’t occur to me to say, “But I’m waiting for the train to Poughkeepsie!” I accept as flattery that I’m mistaken for the Homeless. It’s my watchcap, partly, with its gruesome chalky hue of blue. But mostly it’s what grows out of my cheeks.
You find this beard on Lubovich Jews, jazz musicians, and the Homeless — period. The Homeless are now the sadhus of New York. Sadhus means saints — or the particular saints who wander. Jesus preached, “Leave home and follow me.” All his followers were homeless. Buddha’s ditto. Perhaps all the higher religions were founded by the homeless. Today I’m eating matzoh because it’s Passover and my ancestors were homeless for forty years.
Of course a home is a relative thing. My ancestors had tents in the desert. Today you can go camping in an RV with a name like Hiawatha, and a toilet, sink, and lunch table. When you retire from your job at the insurance company, you can sell your house and just travel around, visiting your grandchildren and Yosemite. But are you homeless? Who has more of a home — the couple in the Chief Cherokee or a man who sleeps on the same grille every night? I’d say they’re about even.
One time in Florida I saw a fellow talking to himself on a Greyhound. He got out at Tallahassee and took another bus in the opposite direction. I suspect he had one of those “Travel Anywhere For A Month For $150” cards — as I did. (That’s cheaper than most studio apartments.) So he just kept going. But was he homeless? He paid his rent.
Even if you carry just a bag, the bag becomes your home. Even if you carry just a comb, the comb becomes your home.
The Homeless seem to own New York City. They have a certain ease in the street that the homeful don’t. Doesn’t the city seem safer than it used to, with all of them around? They civilize a place. They should be called the Harmless.
And they’re always asking — with their coffee cups. It takes trust to ask. The Homeless fill the city with trust.
And they’re always blessing you. They often bless you even if you don’t give — just for looking at them. They’re like the prayer wheels in Tibet, spun by streams.
Most old cultures hold the belief that one accumulates merit by giving — mitzvah, karma. The Homeless may have appeared in New York just in time to save many of us from hell.
Last night on the Number 2 train, a black man with a Laurence Olivier face appeared singing a hymn, holding a coffee cup. We heard his raspy voice approaching; at first it sounded like it might be a radio. When he reached us, the group was so visibly moved that he paused to accept our change. The song hung humorously in the air: “May the circle be un . . .”
He finished it, with a painful-looking exertion, then thanked us and thanked us again.
He looked me right in the eyes and said, “Concern.”
I couldn’t understand him. “What’s that?” I said.
“Concern,” he said. “Concern is so beautiful.”