The Lady of Newkirk Plaza

There is a patchwork-clad homeless woman that lives outside the Newkirk Plaza subway station, and every time I pass her sitting on her cold cement curb it rips my heart right out.

This woman has haunted my thoughts throughout my childhood. I have always kept her at the periphery of my mind; in a way part of me is always with her, at the plaza.

Yet twice a day every day for years I had passed her and justified not stopping to help her. I was always too busy – or so I told myself. The truth was, I was too uncomfortable, and too preoccupied with my own life, to even ask her name.

I think that one of the reasons I passed by her so often, at least subconsciously, was the perceived futility in stopping at all. Deep down I think I felt that the problem of homelessness was too big for me; an essay on Macbeth and a math test more reasonable challenges to tackle. One day as I passed her, though, I just lost it. Angry at my own inaction and my willful blindness, I went up to the lady of Newkirk Plaza and I emptied my pockets to her. If I had premeditated this at all I might’ve known what to do next, but I hadn’t and I didn’t, and so I quickly turned a corner and found myself a stoop to sit on.

I suppose I gave my money to the woman in hopes of reaching some cathartic fulfillment, but I had no such luck. As I threw my crumpled bills down, I realized how perverse the entire situation was. There is no more self-serving a reason to give than because you perceive a living, breathing human being as a route for self-fulfillment.

That day, I learnt an uncomfortable truth about charity. In giving her all my money, I realized that there is no clear-cut distinction between right and wrong here; I can’t just equate giving with right and not giving with wrong.

Long have I struggled with the knowledge that, in my socio-economic position, I face the ethical dilemma of being the judge of the worth of other human beings on a daily basis, but it was not until that moment that I realized how much of a dizzying spectrum there is in act of giving.

The spectrum is about mindfulness. Keeping in mind the humanity of the person I’m giving to is as much a part of the giving: if I were to give out of pity, I would be dehumanizing the object of my aid to just that – an object.

I’m at a point where the underlying meaning is clear to me, but the path is still hidden. I know that I must strive towards empathy; solidarity; mindfulness in my day-to-day interactions, but I don’t know quite how. Self-doubts aside, though, the lady of Newkirk Plaza has taught me that the time to start interacting with the world around me has finally come.

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