Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to Help a Neighbor in Need

She was well dressed, maybe 50-something, with a lovely coat and shoes and an artsy tote. She took her coffee to go and commented on how happy she was to be warm, and inside someplace cozy, inside Colson Patisserie in Park Slope.

"I have no place to go," she said, more matter-of-factly than one might expect, except now, after Sandy. "I'm staying with a friend until Friday and then..." she trailed off. "Then, I don't know."

The young barista looked uncomfortable, so I stepped in.

"Where do you live?" I asked, cognizant suddenly that the question was a loaded one, the tense all wrong. Where did you live?

"Red Hook," she said, turning to face me at my corner table. I just nodded. I'd not been there since the devastation, just heard tell of the wreckage 10 minutes away. I'd just seen pictures, donated money to help, as if it were New Orleans or some further foreign land.

"What do they say, about getting back in?" I asked, hopeful that there was some promise of hope.

She shook her head. "They don't say anything. No one has any information. I live in housing, and the building manager just tells me, when I ask, to go away."

"FEMA?" I asked. "Could you go to a shelter?"

She nodded no. "I just couldn't. All those cots, all those people together..."

It struck me, then. The horror of sudden homelessness, her horror.

"And the money..." she said, shaking her head, unbelieving herself. "It's running out."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I wish I had some information to give you, something..."

She laughed. "It's not for you to say you're sorry, to have information..."

"I should though," I said. "I should know, be able to do something."

Without even thinking, I reached into my bag. I felt so useless, I had to do something.

"Here," I said, standing up from where I'd been sitting, eating a bowl of soup. I handed her a $20. "Take this."

It was the wrong thing, I knew it immediately. Tears started to form in her eyes.

"No!" she said. "Give it to charity, give it to someone..." She stopped herself. She was the one in need.

I felt sick, but I pushed forward. It was too late not to have this conversation, not to face the sad reality of the situation, mine and hers, have and have not.

"Please," I said, "We need to help each other, we need to be able to ask each other directly for help," I said. "I'm just giving money to organizations that help people in trouble, like you. We're neighbors, why can't we ask each other directly for help when we need it? We're going to have to learn to do that."

"Here," she said, anxious to rid herself of her feelings of helplessness, desperate to suddenly. She reached for my bowl on the table, to clear it. "Let me help you..."

"No," I said. I took the bowl and put it on the counter. I felt afterward that I should have let her take it, let her be useful.

"It'll be fine," I said, as I turned to her. Then, it occurred to me: Maybe it wouldn't be, certainly not right away. Maybe, after Friday, she'd have nowhere to go.

"Let me give you my number," I said, grabbing the pen off the counter, pulling a receipt out of my wallet.

I put my name and number down, my e-mail. I thought maybe I should just give her my address, in case she had no phone, no Internet. She could know a place that would take her in, a stranger and a strange place, but someplace.

She took the paper willingly, unlike the $20.

"Thank you," she said, gratitude in her eyes. "I'm Devorah."

"I'm Stephanie," I said.

We walked out of the cafe together. She was headed across the street, to the library.

"Thank goodness it reopened," I said.

She nodded, "Yes," she said. "I feel almost normal there."

"Good-bye," I said. "Good luck, stay warm."

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you very much."

I didn't even give Devorah a gold star. It just didn't seem like nearly enough.  

1 comment:

  1. Stephanie,

    When John and I went to Burning Man this summer, one of the things that moved me about that community is how freely people give and receive. There's an openness on both sides that makes generosity flow.

    I understand how painful it must be to lose your home and suddenly find yourself needing to take charity, when all you want is to be self sufficient again. Maybe there's some way the givers can help make that OK, like saying "Consider it a loan, and when you're able, give it to someone else who needs it?"

    I blogged about Burning Man's generosity:

    Thanks for sharing this. And gold star to you for trying, even if you felt awkward about it.