Walking by his room, I saw Tom focused intensely on an old movie. This gave me a great feeling inside. And Ron, the bitter home health aide, heard that I had given the television to Tom. With an enthusiastic smile on his face, he called out to the other home health aides, “Look what Alan did for Tom.” Many of the home health aides saw Tom’s new television for themselves – and they seemed thrilled at the sight.
The second experience I’d like to highlight: I certainly wasn’t thrilled to see a homeless man, about 70, standing outside the subway in affluent Forest Hills, Queens. He just stood there, not looking for handouts.
He stood there day after day. I soon learned that he slept down in the subway, away from the platform, on a cardboard box. People would sometimes buy him food (myself sometimes included), for which he was appreciative. He wouldn’t go to a shelter because he said he got beat up there.
I was very involved with a theater group at an Orthodox shul a stones’ throw from where this homeless man “lived.” We had done a number of theatrical programs, raising money for Jewish causes. With Thanksgiving behind us and colder weather arriving, we decided that the next play would raise money on behalf of the homeless.
We decided that by helping the homeless, we would be helping this man (who I’ll call George). We never questioned whether he was Jewish. The only things that mattered were that he was suffering, he was near our shul, and we wanted to help him. The play raised $70 in donations. I went to George on the chilly subway platform and asked him what we could buy for him. He was very touched by our offer.
“You know, it’s getting colder,” George said. “I could really use a green, velour sweater, with a high collar and a zipper.”
I was surprised with his specificity. With $70 on hand, I headed to Alexander’s department store. Instead of purchasing the sweater he had requested, I purchased a beautiful, stylish, warm winter jacket – marked down from $189 to $89. Joyful with the belief that George, with so much taken from him, should have this jacket, I was only too happy to lay out the $19 difference.
With jacket in tow, I found George lying on the cardboard box in the subway. Upon informing him that we had gotten something for him, his red face from the cold seemed to warm into a gentle smile.
Thanking me, he took the bag. When he pulled out the stylish winter jacket, I was so happy for him. With a big smile he hugged me and said, “Thank you very much.” But then he added, “I can’t use it.”
Stunned, I told him that he deserved it and should enjoy it.
“I wish I could,” he said, “but if I wore it, people would beat me up and steal it from me. It’s too nice.”
With visions of having to return the jacket to an extraordinarily crowded Alexander’s, I asked George what he wanted instead. “A green velour sweater with a high collar and a zipper,” he calmly answered.
I said I would work on it and wished him a good night. Back to Alexander’s I went, but this time with reinforcement – a woman who knew how to shop. When the clerk inquired as to why I was returning the jacket, I said that it was too nice.
With money returned to me, my professional shopper and I went to the men’s section. Somehow, within a minute, she found the green velour sweater with the high top and the zipper. She had the good sense to put it in a box and wrap it so it looked like a present. After paying the approximately $70 cost (about the amount we had raised), we headed to the subway stop. I hoped that George wouldn’t be there on this very cold night, for maybe he had overcome his resistance and gone to a shelter.
But he was there. Upon seeing us, he smiled as we approached him. When my professional female shopper handed him the wrapped present, he was genuinely moved. His numb fingers made it hard for him to open the package, but although we offered to help him he insisted on doing it himself.