Thursday, October 18, 2012


The train station can serve of as a poverty barometer of sorts. I've never seen as many homeless persons in Penn Station as I have over the last two years.

I can't speak much to their experience. But when I see some talking to themselves, I think of how easily one call fall so far and fast. I would probably be talking to myself too.

When I get to a difficult passage in a book, I might read it over slowly and mutter it softly.

If I'm trying to reconsider something someone said or an argument of my own, I might repeat parts out loud to see if they really makes sense.

If I'm going to do a presentation or have to confront someone, I might find myself practicing in front of a mirror or while I am pacing around the living room in front of an invisible audience.

Essentially, when I have to reprocess things to make sure they make sense, I may very well say something to myself out loud.

So when I see homeless people having animated conversations with themselves, my natural reaction is to think less "crazy" and more "what kind of burden are they carrying?"

It certainly has to be a shell shock, finding yourself with no place to go in a world of sky rises and concrete that won't allow you to live off the land. There's limited opportunity to help yourself if you really wanted to. You are essentially dependent on the grace and mercy of others. And if you are homeless in Manhattan, you walk by opulence every day.

They've got a ton of stuff to make sense of and rationalize.

One day I was at Brooklyn central library, on the edge of Flatbush. Much like a mega Barnes and Noble gone unchecked, all sorts of life walk in and out of there.

Maybe it's presumptuous to say someone looks homeless or of unfortunate circumstance. But that's what I thought when I saw this guy. He was a big guy, big boned, but not quite obese. Balding. He looked like he might have had a pot belly, but was wearing a long brownish-greenish overcoat and siting at a table that cut above his waste, so I couldn't tell. His coat and jeans looked dingy and worn by the weather.

A girl, who looked like she was somewhere between her mid 20's and early 30's, was siting across from him. She looked clean and was dressed casually, like a grad student. Their conversation is what had caused me to look over in the first place. They were, in fact, talking about math.

The tall, dingy man was talking quickly and enthusiastically. He would catch himself sometimes and re-explain things at a more measured pace, using his hands when he did, like an Italian. The woman across from him sat, her brow folded into a crinkled frown. She was trying to understand. At first I thought it was because he was talking gibberish.

I had been in school for finance at the time, which led me to read about books about math as a passing curiosity. I had by no means become intimate with maths. They become easier to understand only when I'm exposed to them with some sort of regularity. But as I listened closer, I realized he knew what he was talking about. He knew it so well, that he spoke to theory as if it were second nature. 

Was he tutoring the girl? Was he a laid off math professional or academic or something? That might be the world's most interesting legally legit hustle.

Something about the exchange made me smile.

I ended up at another library recently, one I had been to a handful of times already.  I sat in the same chair by the window, where I could plug my laptop into the wall socket. I heard a voice speaking out loud. I tilted my chair backwards to look around the corner of the wall and see who it was. It was the same guy I had heard twice before. 

He was a smallish man with brown hair and a thick mustache. He sank back into the over-sized lounge chair. As always, he was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt.

I thought I heard one of the library's regulars talk unfavorably about him. One of my acquaintances, who lived in the neighborhood, told me he was crazy. 

I looked again. 

He wasn't speaking to himself. He was reading out of a big black book. The closer I looked, the less crazy I saw.

I stood up and walked over to him.

The book was a biography about President Nixon. He said he spent a lot of time reading about former presidents and rattled off a few he had a particular interest in. 

I noted that they all had run the country under times of war and asked him if he had been in the military.No, he had picked up the habit from his father, whose father had been in the military. 

In fact, he came from generations of military. His ancestors had moved to the U.S. in the 1800's. He claimed to be a great ancestor of Napoleon. The ancestors after Napoleon and before him had been anything from common men to counts and duchesses.

His eyes did not get distant as he spoke. He didn't speak at a hurried or overly measured pace. Nothing about him said he was delusional or trying to prove himself. In the Internet age, it wouldn't be too hard to confirm what he said if I wanted to.

Regardless, I became interested in a bit of history I never would have otherwise. And I found some knowledge and sanity in a man who everyone else seemed to dismiss. 

The world felt bigger that day. Something about it made me smile.