My local homeless man asked me this morning if I'd been to 72nd Street and Broadway recently. I have, I said… and yes, I'd noticed that a sort of shantytown is beginning to take shape on certain nights… and yes, there is a definite proliferation of the homeless. They come in all varieties-- the ones who seem absolutely hopeless victims of circumstances-- then the poor planners, the drug addicts and alcoholics who would trade any kind of security for a fix… the beggars, the wounded and afflicted, the vegan dog-lovers who squat on corners and feed their pets boutique food, who ask for practical things like flashlights, batteries, toothbrushes and water packets. They are safe there--- it's almost a little festive in the balmy summer nights… a kind of reality show of their own-- some of them swearing to me that they wouldn't trade their freedom for the oppressive landlord-tenant system, for a 9-5 existence working in fast food or retail just to put cornflakes in the breakfast bowls of a tableful of kids whining for $200 Nikes and an iPhone 7.
Sister, one calls me as I get off the 2 train at 3 AM… because I am susceptible to that nomenclature, since my own sibling is mean and heartless, wealthy and estranged. He can almost feel my knees buckle imperceptibly as I reach into near-empty pockets and dole out whatever is left… 42 cents last night… yes, I travel light, when I am carrying my instrument. Yes, he needs all 42… and I am painfully sympathetic to the less fortunate, despite the fact that a small thing like shoe repair is beyond my budget these days. No, I cannot imagine not having a dry place to write on rainy nights, clean sheets and a warm bath for my babies, in past days… a door behind which I can lock my guitar and know that it will be there, unstolen, when I return, God willing.
I have thought long and hard lately about this will of God, as I check up on a neighbor who is in final stages of a wasting and wicked cancer-- a woman who just 3 years ago was living the careless and happy life of a bartender/actor with marginal financial success but with a devil-may-care attitude and a spirit of independence witnessed by her wild red hair. She is now terrified, this new friend of mine-- of the unknown, of the pain, of the power of the disease to outwit any treatment or diet or prediction. Fear is contagious. I approach her with steeled nerves-- with love, because I know how callow people shun the sick at times…and with great admiration because she is living with a kind of grace and dignity that I don't think I could muster. She thanks me for my kindness-- when I have not earned that attribute. I can scarcely afford to buy her a Gatorade while her electrolytes are haywire and she is unable to manage much of anything by mouth at this point. She apologizes for the occasional outburst or protest at the medical staff who calmly stick and stab her, wound her and send her home, because she is still, most of the time, categorized as 'ambulatory'. So she goes upstairs and thanks God for her remote so she can distract herself with television, go online on her ancient computer where she can share side effects and symptoms with other patients, most of whom are desperately seeking affirmation or answers which do not exist.
God? I ask myself, knowing full well He has never been the sort of miracle worker on a throne with a magic staff. I imagine He, too, is as baffled by cancer as He is by the internet and robotics and Uber vs. Didi; by an artificially tanned presidential candidate, and by the bitterness of the lower half of the one percent. No, there have not been many wealthy saints-- no matter how philanthropic this fractional minority with the economic majority may be, they still have way too much. I, on the other hand, am in the lower half of the 99%… somewhere above the homeless, I suppose, but struggling to pay for intermittent phone service and lousy TV, afflicted with leaky pipes, insufficient heat, mice and various mechanical Catch-22s which make reasonable repairs impossible.
Still, I am alive… I am detached from some of my most cherished lovers, my children are independent but good humans…. my possessions have become things that are deeply poignant and meaningful… as though people have receded and the souvenirs have taken their place. Try as I do, I cannot impart to my son the importance of this or that book, this pile of old handkerchiefs, these letters-- these hand-painted envelopes and this shirt from 1968… this beat-up guitar case. To him, they are all things for the future post-mortem bonfire, the enormous thrift-shop pickup which will punctuate my departure. For me, this seems unbearable now.
I am going out of town for a gig-- I asked my ill friend if I could do anything. 'A postcard,' she said. 'I would like a postcard mailed to me with an exotic stamp.' And how that touched me--- how I hope I'll find something which will not let her down because that has become my mission. I wonder if she will notice if I send her something from one of my collections-- because I fear I won't be able to find something worthy in a souvenir shop-- or even in a museum-- in this disappointing digital culture of ours, so I think I am going to cheat and take along something I cherish.
On the uptown C train today, there was a young girl with a 10-month-old baby in a stroller. He was her 5th, she told me, with her tired eyes and her wifebeater and shorts. I wonder how many were with her when she got that incredible tattoo of the praying hands on her chest… or the cursive-written ink names on her breasts. She was shaking her head to music from her iPod as her youngest boy nodded off and his little hand let itself down to his side the way children do in their sleep-- with a slow grace that eludes even the most accomplished ballerinas.
There is God in this gesture, I thought, although his mother was in the world of Hip hop. This is how He would bless us, if He did… how He will lower us, we pray, from living to some kind of rest… with a sense of compassion and control… from tears and the hot sweaty crowded subway car of life to some eternal dream of peace... where there are no more bandages or treatments or malignancies or Medicaid, no more bills and hateful sisters… no more homelessness and fearful sleeping in damp ominous doorways under mercury streetlights but the safe breeze of a starry summer night. Amen.