Q: “Why does drinking beer make you smarter?”
A: “Because it made Bud Wiser.”
Yeah, I know. Clearly, the guy who shared this joke with me is not going to be headlining at Caroline’s anytime soon. His sense of humor aside, I would like to take the opportunity to tell you a bit about a man named Leaf.
My friend and I were walking home after dinner not too long ago when we come across this guy. He was sitting on the corner, guitar in hand, and bucket by his side. As we walked by, he didn’t ask us for anything, but my friend pulled out a couple bucks to put in his bucket.
Next thing, the guys springs to life and after expressing his gratitude, says he would like to share a couple of jokes with us. We decide to indulge him. That Budweiser joke was his opener. Yeah, bad start. In any case, Leaf turned out to be quite a charming and witty man. We covered a wide range of topics and some of his insights and opinions were quite profound.
These kinds of encounters are part of what make New York City different from most. The close proximity in which the haves and the have-nots exist and rub elbows is quite unique. It doesn’t take one too much time living here to become chronically aware of the amount of brokenness and need there is in this great city.
The disenfranchised are around us. All day, everyday. They’re singing on the subway, pleading for a slice outside the pizzeria and sleeping on the steps of the local church. Then you have the guys who walk around Times Square with signs that say, “Why lie, I need money for weed.” They are always a big hit with the out-of-towners who consider this sort of ridiculousness a New York novelty they can tell their friends back home about.
But yes, the needy are all around us. It’s more than apparent; it’s overwhelming. All you have to do is stop and take a look. It’s to the point that we’ve almost become desensitized to the issue. Perhaps because tuning it out is the only way to deal with the magnitude of the situation.
It’s not uncommon to ride the subway five times in a day and three out of those five be confronted with someone pleading for money or food. You’re not going to walk five blocks anywhere in this city without seeing someone sitting on the side of the road with a cardboard sign asking for help.
I have lived in and visited many other major “First World” cities and can definitively say that nowhere else is the problem so in your face as it is in New York City. You’ll never ride the tube in London and have homeless people sleeping or begging in there.
You won’t stroll through one of the swankier neighbourhoods in Barcelona and scurry past a guy pushing all his belongings around in a shopping cart, talking to himself. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but you just don’t see it the same way you do in this fair city.
Of course in typical New York fashion, the demographic of the disenfranchised spans all shape, sizes, colors and creeds. I’ve even seen a homeless Asian. That’s like seeing a unicorn. We begin to wonder if whatever small contribution we could make even makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. Is it even worth me giving this guy a couple bucks, when I’m just going to run into another person in exactly the same situation five minutes from now? Where does it end?
Well in the end, what started as putting a couple bucks in a bucket turned into a 45-minute conversation with Leaf. Truth be told, I think that the time we spent talking with him was ultimately of more value than the money we gave. More often than not, money is actually the easiest thing we can give because in a sense, it costs us next to nothing.
Don’t get me wrong here; money goes a long way to meet their more pressing needs, but I suppose what I’m talking about here goes deeper.
I’m talking about, in some small way, making the downtrodden and forgotten of our society feel somewhat valued again as human beings. I’m talking about restoring a sense of dignity. Time is our most valued asset and where we invest it ultimately speaks tons to what we value. Now I don’t stop and talk to every homeless guy on the street or even give money, but I know for sure that the times I have stopped to engage them has ultimately had an impact on them beyond just the money or food I gave.
Hey, not everyone is going to be receptive to our good intentions and as engaging as Leaf was, but that’s unavoidable in almost any sphere of life. It’s not necessarily a valid excuse for not trying. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if anyone is entitled to have a bit of a ‘tude, it’s probably the guy who has been sleeping on the streets, for the past six months. Just saying.
Anyway, to close on a lighter note, I leave you with another winner from my main man Leaf:
Q: “What did the mushroom say to the girl at the bar?”
A: “If you give me a chance you’ll, see that I’m a fungi.”
Yes Leaf, you may not be the funniest guy, but you certainly are a fun guy. There’s no doubt about that.
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