I see him during the day. His back to the street, on the edge of the curb, he’s positioned as far from the building as he can be while still under the scaffolding. On sunny days the wooden planks shield him from the heat. When it rains he moves inward, far enough to protect himself from getting drenched, but not so far as to disturb passersby. There are two battered shopping carts beside him, each filled to the brim with obscure items wrapped in plastic bags. He’s dressed in black, layered according to the dictates of weather. Often I see him comfortably seated in a chair. Sometimes he’s reading a book. At mealtimes, he unfolds a small table, places plates and utensils, and eats. He doesn’t look at me when I walk by, doesn’t solicit, doesn’t confront. Quiet and organized he protects his dual-purpose turf: the day station with a semblance of a home and the sleeping corner. It’s not exactly a corner, but a narrow patch of cement that hugs the building’s outer wall. Come evening, he moves his possessions to that space and goes to sleep. I’ve never seen him change from one domain to the other, but by the time I’m returning from a show or an evening out with friends, he’s there stretched out in his coveted spot, with four other men in black like him forming a row of desolate humans in makeshift beds. On a very dark night, I don’t see them at first, but the smell of unwashed bodies and dirty clothes permeates the street.
I hold my breath and remind myself that I’m a liberal.
Nobody can accuse me of lacking empathy. I help my friends when they go through rough times. I contribute to many causes. But I don’t do anything to directly assist the five men outside my building. I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid of them because they’re strangers in black. I’m afraid of them because they’re desperate. I’m afraid of them because there are five of them and I often walk home alone. I’m afraid they’ll never go away. I’m paying taxes. Why isn’t the city taking them to a shelter? Is a shelter more dangerous than an open street? Why is my building free for all? Didn’t we residents buy the right to privacy and security?
I’m frustrated but I remind myself that I’m a liberal.
I take the elevator to the fifth floor, step into my apartment, lock the door behind me and put on the security chain. Once safely within my walls, I feel guilty for not being more charitable. I know a young woman who was so hopelessly addicted, she’d be homeless today if it weren’t for her family’s help. I know a couple who were down on their luck and lived in their car. I feel immensely sorry for the five men who have nothing, but anything short of inviting them to sleep on my spare beds would make me a hypocrite. I console myself with definitions.
What’s a liberal? Someone who believes in equal opportunity for all, not in equal distribution of wealth.
What’s a liberal? Someone who believes in letting people live their lives as they wish, not in letting them trample on other people’s rights.
We’ve been paying a fortune for the repairs of the building’s exterior, repairs that have brought about the erection of the immense scaffolding out front. Soon the work will end, the assessment will cease to appear on my monthly statements, and the scaffolding will be taken down. When that happens the five men will have to go elsewhere, the stench will dissipate, and parents will send their children to the store across the street unaccompanied.
I take a bath and remind myself that I’m a liberal.