December 24, 2002

December Subway Story... Part 1

By Tenzin McGrupp

16 December 02

He sat across from me, with an oversized tattered jacket, and extra bulky pants, probably because he had on at least two pairs of pants, maybe more to keep warm from the bitter December cold. He cradled a ripped, black Glad garbage bag, which apparently contained all his possessions, and was held together by a few strands of masking tape. He was a tall black man, in his 50s perhaps, with white and grey specks peppering his natty beard. A deep scar ran down his face underneath his left eye, which he kept touching with his hands, covered in an old pair of pink mittens. And he was staring at me, as we both sat across from each other at the end of the subway car. It was 6:25 AM and the No. 1 Train crawled downtown, as I made eye contact with this homeless person.

I quickly sized up the situation and realized I had another subway story.

Before breaking eye contact, I nodded, to acknowledge his existence. Sometimes, I discovered, that when you are in a desperate and dire situation, like most homeless persons are, that being treated with dignity and respect by a stranger far outweighs a couple of dollars from persons whom couldn’t be bothered by a dirty, vile, down and out street person.

I spoke softly, but never breaking eye contact. I explained to the man that I am a writer and I am also the editor of an E-Zine and that I am close to a deadline without a story.

"If you let me interview you for a few minutes, I’ll buy you breakfast and give you a couple of dollars."

"Sure," he said, slightly unexcited, but with a look of trepidation on his face.

"What’s your name?" I asked.


Joe and I shook hands, then exited at Chambers Street and we walked one block to a small diner on the corner. We sat in a small booth, ignoring the strange glances we got from other breakfast patrons, and from the owner, a short balding Greek guy, with an eye patch, who looked like Danny Devito’s twin brother. I imagine that a suit dining with a six foot eight inch tall black homeless man was enough to make the average New Yorker look twice.

Joe was very uncomfortable and felt out of place. He kept staring out the window, as if he were waiting for someone else. He ordered an omelet and some coffee, and I got a bacon and cheese sandwich on a roll. He finished his meal rather quickly, and in between bites I gathered some personal information from Joe. Like he was the youngest of twelve children, growing up in Gary, Indiana, before getting drafted into the Army in 1968 and fought two tours in Vietnam. He floated around from Indianapolis, to Chicago, to Detroit, to eventually Brooklyn, where he married and worked as a mechanic, and supported a wife and two kids as well as a nasty heroin addiction.

"Some days I feel I am where I am because of what I have done to the people in my life."

He spouted this line to me, without making eye contact, as he stared at the middle of his empty plate. It was simple, and honest, and it was as if he pulled the same exact words that I had been thinking out of my head, and offered it up to me, as a pearl of street wisdom.

To be continued...

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from NYC.

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