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Winter 1997
City Journal Winter 1997.
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West Side  D iarist

Baffled Compassion
Lisa Schiffren
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Shortly after I moved to the "upper" Upper West Side late in my first pregnancy, I went one summer afternoon to get a sandwich at the well-trafficked bagel shop on the corner. Standing in front, looking forlorn and ill, was a young woman. She had long red hair, pale skin, and a haunted look. She held open the door and said something—I don't remember what—that amounted to an unusually polite request for help.

It had been years since I gave money to people begging on the street. The last time, a young woman dressed in thin clothes on a bitter night elicited both cash and real pity—through, as I discovered later, adept acting.

The rational hardness that most New Yorkers eventually adopt to deal with ever-present scams is spiritually confining. We suppress what I was taught: that when someone asks for money directly, we are commanded to give-on the grounds that only dire need causes a person to overcome shame. That summer I was particularly eager to obey such commandments, for fear of blessings withheld from the coming baby.

And here was a girl of 19 or 20, looking sick and hungry. She had the signs of one living too close to the street; yet unlike most city beggars, she retained a hint of recent freshness, girlishness, eagerness, that made her condition heartbreaking.

I knew that I was going to have a baby girl. There but for the grace of God goes my daughter, I thought (with perhaps a touch of pregnancy-induced maudlin excess). I gave the young woman several dollars, and she said thank-you in a way that indicated gratitude yet maintained dignity. This convinced me that she came from a decent home and made me weepier still about her plight.

I told my husband that when he saw the girl at the bagel shop, he too should give her a few dollars. He asked me what I thought I was doing. "Helping," I said. "You're supporting her drug use," he replied, though he admitted to having given her money too.

I have few illusions about the power of small kindnesses to overcome an adult's pursuit of self-destruction. Inner demons are the world's most powerful creatures. But perhaps the bleakness can be punctuated with some warmth?

Around Thanksgiving a year ago, I was pushing my baby carriage on Broadway when I spied the girl coming toward me, dressed as usual in jeans and a nondescript jacket. Her hair was lank, her skin blotchy, with no makeup. But this time she was very animated, rolling her narrow hips as she walked, flirting in a parody of sexiness with a scruffy, fiftyish man with a florid face. I was shocked—though nothing is more common than a drug addict turning tricks. "She'll be dead inside of two years," my husband said.

Over the next year I often saw her with johns. Other times she was visibly high. Always she was increasingly gaunt. Still ' vulnerability shone through. Several times I saw mothers with babies in strollers talking with her, offering her food, coffee, help. I have overheard her wanting to play with the babies. What mother could allow it?

I saw her just before this Thanksgiving, a wraith striding down Broadway with a dirty blanket wrapped around her shoulders, eyes vacant, several missing teeth attesting to the violence of the streets. My companion yanked her stroller out of the way and hissed "AIDS" as the girl passed us.

I have often wondered why this young woman so touches me. Each time I give her money and see the shade of an eager girl now overwhelmed by a big city, I wonder how I could really help. Of course I can't bring her home and clean her up, find her a job, lecture her on virtue, or drag her to one of the myriad neighborhood social "service" agencies that serve bureaucratic interests before lost souls. Soon she'll be gone. In the face of the smug "caring" industry and a woman's will to destroy herself, compassion is baffled.

 

 


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