I had stopped by his place a couple of times before. It was on something that looked like a sewer or subway grate, spewing hot air and cradling his raggedy blankets, a couple of bags, stacks of sauces, and some chicken bones. He was never there when I came around, mostly because I usually stopped by late in the evening when it was so cold that he had likely abandoned his makeshift heater to find a better place to sleep.
I always hoped that he’d found a place for the night.
Usually, though, I’d pass by the man—or his pile of blankets—almost every day and move on with my life. His little piece of humanity never intersected with mine even though he lived right in front of my home. But somehow, like the lives of many others, this man’s reality never had enough impact on mine for me to notice.
His blankets remained a part of the scenery of the Midway until one day, walking home from Logan, I saw him standing near his things.
I came over, pausing Beyoncé crooning about her “babe.”
“Sir, are you doing fine?” I realized this was a stupid question as soon as I said it.
“Well, I’m homeless and I’m hungry.” He was not about to deal with my pretenses. His teeth were dirty and crooked, but sat in a not-unhandsome face.
His speech was soft and a bit jumbled, so I had to cherish the words that I did understand.
“Would you like me to get you some food from the dining hall the next time I go? That would be in the evening. I only have yogurt in my room,” I said.
“I have a stomach ulcer. I like soup and fruit, if you can get me that. Maybe something sweet too, like a cookie or something.” The sentence was uncharacteristically clear.
I said I would try and bring him something. He shook my hand and told me to leave it under his blankets if he wasn’t there when I came back. I really hoped he was.
After I crossed the street to walk to New Grad, I was hit by a blast of hot air from the heating in the building. Some bundled-up students were talking and walking out, their perfect white teeth visible. I went inside and was struck by the odor of food. Somebody was cooking, my housemates were working on their Macs, and I could just go to my room and grab a Chobani if I wanted to, immersed in warmth and yogurt and chasing my opportunities.
I don’t think I really, truly, care about economic inequality until it hits me in the face. I understand it intellectually, that there are people who have to worry about food, shelter, health needs…survival. I sympathize to the degree that seems appropriate and move on with my day. I don’t think that I can truly begin to sympathize until I walk from a pile of blankets and some chicken bones to heat and free food. Until my little piece of the world strikes his piece and nicks it.
I grabbed some fruit from my Resident Heads, some soup from a housemate, some dried snacks from my room. Gathering the food took about 20 minutes, and when I walked back outside, his blankets were a lifeless pile again. This was several weeks ago. I haven’t seen him since.
There are many people whose lives hold this quality for me. It’s easy for them to be meaningful only when I’m consciously noticing them, which in a lot of instances is during a brief glance or a polite “good morning.” Those people, in turn, probably give me only a brief glance in their own reality. Perhaps in those cases, like with the man on the Midway, noticing is the first step toward making an impact on each other.
Anya Marchenko is the blogger behind The Anyion. She is a first-year in the College.