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On Thursday, March 31st, my uncle’s kind-spirited, witty and wonderful father David died suddenly in the early hours of the morning. Three days later, my family and I traveled into Manhattan for his funeral. It was my birthday.

Of course I didn’t say anything to the mourners. They were there to pay their respects to David because they had loved him, or they loved his family, and regardless of affiliation, the time had come to say goodbye. His life had reached its conclusion. Mine was still a work in progress.

My mom needed to eat something after the service, so before we left Manhattan to attend David’s burial in Valhalla, my grandmother and I walked to H&H Bagels. When we reached the doorway, a large, unkempt African-American man wrapped in a tattered parka was sitting on a crate next to the opening, muttering the syllables “da-da-da” repeatedly and without cessation. He looked each customer in the eye as they entered or exited the shop, but he didn’t seem to be speaking to anyone in particular, which was just as well because no one paid any attention to him. Like a bench, a skyscraper, a cigarette butt or a sidewalk, he was a piece of the scenery – and like the scenery, he never moved.

The predicament of a hobo in Manhattan is a strange one; for social beings, it’s an incomprehensible thought to be isolated and lonely in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Surrounded by people yet without an acquaintance, distinctive in the crowd but without an identity, the homeless are perpetual migrants in a sea of buildings and apartments. Unsurprisingly, many of them gravitate toward storefronts or subway stations; in addition to serving the practical purpose of providing shelterless street dwellers with a roof over their heads, these locations are chock full of commuters. Yes, the dispossessed will often beg for money – but they don’t make much, even from sympathizers. Could it be possible that they immerse themselves in the city’s masses because they don’t want to feel so alone?

Perhaps it’s a stretch. A good percentage of the homeless are drug-addicted or mentally challenged, and oftentimes these setbacks are the predominant reasons for their displacement. There must also be some that live more privately, in alleyways and behind buildings, and it’s not like we see them too frequently. All the same, I think that we have an inbuilt tendency to search for company; it’s a human instinct, and the derelicts on the street are no less human than we are. Their repeated calls and scribbled cardboard signs are as much a call for acknowledgement as they are for cash and coins.

How, then, are we able to so heartlessly ignore the sidewalk residents who make a living out of begging to every pedestrian that passes by? The money’s for meth, we tell ourselves. They can go to a shelter. They can go to a soup kitchen. There are places where they can find food, a bed, maybe a new shirt, clothes that don’t smell so bad, protection against the cold. That’s all a hobo needs, right? Food, shelter and clothing. The bare necessities.

As humans, we know that’s untrue. There’s nothing more rewarding than love and recognition, and there’s nothing more demoralizing than solitude. Those that choose to seclude themselves are making a choice; those who live on city streets are not. The vision of the man who sat shivering and chanting his da’s underneath the awning of H&H Bagels continues to haunt me because I know that he’ll probably never have what I have. Sure, I live in a house; there’s food in the refrigerator; I have two computers and a bathroom of my own and a great education and my closet’s full of clothes. But most importantly, I can wake up every morning with the understanding that my departure from this world would leave a gap, and my friends and family would know that I left.

On the evening of April 3rd, 2011, my parents, grandparents, and a close friend took me out to celebrate the passing of the seventeenth year of my existence. Earlier that day, a congregation at a funeral home in Manhattan gathered to honor David’s memory and celebrate his long and joyful life. And on that same day, the man outside H&H Bagels sat on the curb, pulled his parka tightly around him, and spoke to the passersby. It might just have been his birthday too.




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