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Witness

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Lisa saw Timmy’s eyes filling with tears as she tried to drag him from the park. She could sense his desire to turn around and continue playing in the wooden sandbox, but she guided him down the dirty New York sidewalk nonetheless. Water saturated the air, looming overhead in the form of angry grey storm clouds.

“Come on, Timmy! We have to get home before the rain starts,” she explained, trying to justify her seemingly cruel actions. Of course, reasoning with a toddler was futile, so she resorted to more questionable tactics. Sugar ought to do the trick, she thought. “If we go home now, you can have a cookie for snack!” she conceded. Sure enough, Timmy quickly forgot about the park and stopped resisting her attempts to guide him home. They were on their way.

The walk home was quite short, only a few blocks. However, having a toddler in tow slowed things down a great deal, so by the time the duo reached the final block, Lisa was ready to get home and put Timmy down for his nap. Tall buildings, home to the city’s poorer residents, shaded the sidewalk. As a single mother, Lisa struggled to afford an apartment even in this part of town. Every month she hoarded her wages in the hope of escaping the dingy, crime-ridden streets around the building they inhabited. She was determined to provide a better environment for Timmy. Hopefully it would happen before he was subjected to a school known simply as a number, in desperate need of state funding but always failing to earn it. Sometimes, though, she wondered if Timmy would ever recover from the things he witnessed on trips to and from daycare or the park. Gunshots ringing through the night no longer disturbed his sleep; Lisa didn’t know if this was better or worse than the alternative.

Progressing down the street, the smell of strong body odor and raw sewage engulfed the mother and son. The first time Lisa had smelled this intense mixture of human disgust, she had wondered about its origin. Now, after living in the slums for three years, she could pinpoint it easily. Not surprisingly, glancing up she spotted a homeless man. The lost expression he wore was familiar to her by this point, for she saw when she left for work each morning. “What am I doing here?” his lined face seemed to ask. “What did I do to deserve this?” Often Lisa wondered the same thing about the grimy men and women she saw on the street. Were they there because of bad decision-making, or simply rotten luck? Either way, she didn’t agree with the city’s new policies concerning the homeless. The man standing in front of her didn’t look like a threat, but according to the new laws he was committing a crime by standing right there, gripping a filthy burlap sack and meekly asking passers by for spare change.

Suddenly Lisa saw movement from one of the towering tenements next to the homeless man. Three young men emerged from the doorway of the dilapidated building, strutting confidently towards the poor, cowering creature who was now clinging to his sack as though it were a shield.

“Hey! Old man! What are you doing on our street? You’re stinking the place up!” The leader of the group jeered at the man, glancing over his shoulder to share a mischievous smile with his compatriots. In response, the homeless man backed away gradually, fueling the ringleader’s anger. This man, probably in his late twenties, was wearing a bulky yellow sweater over low-slung jeans, and now he slowly removed a bat from beneath the sweater where it had been concealed. “You gonna keep backing away? Huh, old man?” he called out, brandishing the bat wildly. The homeless man stopped his retreat, but seemed to shrink even further into the scenery, willing himself to disappear.

From her position on the street, Lisa was terrified. Should I do something? she asked herself. Quickly perusing the street, she didn’t see a single policeman, and couldn’t remember passing one on the way back from the park. Think, she commanded, How can I help this poor man?

“Mommy, why are they playing baseball?” It was Timmy. In her panic, Lisa had nearly forgotten he was with her. She gripped his tiny hand more tightly, feeling its stickiness beneath a coating of gritty sand from the park. Checking carefully for traffic, she crossed the street, taking refuge beneath the shadow of the buildings on the other side. She looked away from the homeless man and his tormentors, trying to block out his whimpers as he endured the young man’s beating. Timmy shouldn’t see this, she thought.

“I’ll race you home!” she told her son. “First one there gets a cookie!” Again, the promise of sugar paid off. Together, the two of them ran from the dismal street, leaving the homeless man behind as the first drops of rain fell like tears behind them.



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