Today, I was coming home from Barnes & Noble in Union Square on the F train (browsing is free). A young man with a black lab boarded and began panhandling. Normally, my rule is to give only to street performers and not panhandlers because I can't afford it. However, this kid broke my heart. He was dressed in such shabby clothes that the heels of his sneakers were worn down into a diagonal line. He looked like he hadn't had a decent meal in days and smelled like he hadn't showered in weeks (hard to stay clean on the street). And his dog didn't look much better--it was skin and bones, and too listless to move. The kid was begging so that he could buy something for his dog to eat. An older man on the train asked the kid "Why don't you get a job?"
Right. Because the Employment Fairy is going to tap him with a magic wand and turn him from a down-and-out street kid into a professional with a middle-class salary and benefits. Because companies are falling all over themselves to hire someone without an address, phone, clean suits and access to a shower. Because the economy DOESN'T suck right now so that even middle-class, college-educated, experienced people aren't struggling to find and keep jobs. All of this ran through my head at this sanctimonious pronouncement. And, since keeping my mouth shut has never been my strong suit, I responded with the only thing I could say:
"You can't get a job without an address."
Suddenly, the train car came alive. People who didn't know each other were suddenly discussing the dearth of social services available in what is supposedly the richest country in the world. I even volunteered a bit of my own story--that I was fleeing an abusive marriage, and that there was very little available even for me. Sure, there is shelter space--sort of. Most shelters are full. Sure, there is Section 8, and everyone assumed that an abused woman with kids would get to the top of the list. Yeah, right behind the thousands of OTHER abused women with kids on the list. And, unless Builder ponies up tuition like YESTERDAY, I will have no childcare and will end up homeschooling again by default. This, of course, puts the kibosh on my plans to get a job and be self-supporting.
And then I thought how narrow the chasm is that separates this young man from myself. If it weren't for the grace of G-d and the court system, I could be homeless too. Sure, I'm sitting there in clean clothes, with a wig and scarf on my head, jewelry, makeup, manicured nails, an Anne Klein purse and a smartphone. I look like any other middle-class person. But who can tell? Builder is only paying half his court-ordered child support every month. I'm living in a house that isn't really mine. The wig and scarf were bought prior to my marriage. Queen Mom paid for the purse and smartphone. The makeup is drugstore grade, and I do my own nails with Sally Hansen polish. And the jewelry is street-vendor costume, all bought before I came to New York. I'm no stranger to the condition of having the thinnest veneer of middle-class prosperity separate me from the streets.