I was in New York with a list of errands, but also on a special mission. As part of this mission I carried with me, tucked inside my left shirt pocket, a new $100 bill folded in half, and half again. On starting my rounds as I left Penn Station, I eyed the street beggars lining my path, in each case asking myself the question “What about him?” or “What about her?” This was part of my mission, too.
A few weeks earlier my wife and I, like millions of other U.S. citizens, received a lump of money from the government ($1400 apiece), tagged for the purpose of Covid relief. The sum showed up as a direct deposit in our banking statement for the month of March. But did we really need the money, Jean and I wondered aloud. The two of us are up in years and live in easy circumstances.
After discussing the matter at dinner, we decided to take the high road and give away our two portions as each party saw fit. With her share, Jean wrote a check for the full amount to one of her causes, social justice. I had something else in mind, something much different, and my share I took from the bank in C-notes—14 stiff ones straight from the mint.
During my future trips to the city (I commute in roughly once a week), I planned to disperse the fourteen notes to random panhandlers, as the spirit moved me. Face-to-face charity—that was the idea. Where was the pleasure, in the name of charity, of writing a check and dropping it in the mail? Where the look of gratitude, where the “God bless you”? These tokens you only get on the street, and for very little expenditure: a dollar bill, a few coins, bits of food brought from home (cookies, pretzels, granola bars, clementines).
What kind of blessing would I get, I wondered, for a C-note instead of my usual dollar? Extra blessings, with extra feeling? I felt my excitement grow on the train as I patted the pocket with the bill inside. In order to make the biggest impression it had to be a C-note, even as I worried about its practicality for the recipient. Say the person wanted to break the bill on a candy bar but looked like an obvious pauper to the clerk. Would the clerk accept the proffered bill in exchange? Would any clerk anywhere accept the proffered bill?
Or might this big bill work a kind of miracle? In one of Mark Twain’s stories, “The Million Pound Bank Note,” just such a note falls like manna into the hands of the destitute hero, who very quickly makes a discovery. Despite his rags and haggard appearance, he only has to flash the object and the whole town of London falls at his feet. As the weeks go by, he lives like royalty and never once puts a dent in the note.
I imagined similar results in store for the happy bearer of my crisp Ben Franklin.
I was in the area of Herald Square, not far from Penn Station, when I noticed a young man in a sad-looking wheelchair who was missing his legs below the knees. He sat with his back to an empty storefront. A light-blue mask obscured his face. On either side of him were his two prostheses standing straight and tall on wedges painted and shaped to look like sneakers. He must have taken them off on parking, the better to show his affliction to the public. His stumps, or whatever the word is now, were covered by a thick white mesh, from each of which protruded a screw about an inch and a half in length. The screws looked rusty seen close up. His face was white above the line of the mask over his nose and mouth. The mask aside, he was all in black on this summer day—black shorts, black polo, black cap and bill.
He made no bleating appeal for alms. He simply sat there, and I liked him for that. I quickly closed the ground between us, and, whipping out the C-note, flashed the gaudy number in front of his face. He visibly started, his right arm balking, as if he thought a mistake had been made. In that split-second, he darted a look from the bill to me and back to the bill.
Only then did he find his voice. “Thank you. Thank you so much,” he said as he cautiously took the gift from my hand.
“Are you going to have trouble breaking that bill?” I asked the man, who at first didn’t hear me. Like him, I too was wearing a mask.
I repeated the question in a louder voice, and this time he answered with an almost scoffing shake of the head and wrinkling of the nose. The two emphatic actions together brought me properly down to earth. It was only a C-note after all, and not that million in the story by Twain.
He spoke with a heavy foreign accent—Russian, he explained to me, in answer to the first of my nosy questions. He was born and raised in one of the old republics of Soviet Union days. For reasons that will become clear, I will not give his real name. Instead I’ll call him Vladislav and shroud his other personal data.
He gave the following account of himself over the din of midtown traffic. Every so often he’d shift in his seat, raising himself an inch or two by pressing down on the arms of the wheelchair. I felt his soreness each time it happened, the soreness of sitting too long in one spot.
“I’m 44 years old,” he began. “I came to this country in my 20s. Why? To get rich, like everyone else. I still had my legs, my feet, back then. I was a normal, healthy boy. No brothers and sisters. Just me. Father had a construction company, made good money. I had my own car at 15. Mother bought it for me. A brand-new, very expensive, Russian-made car. I’m not supposed to drive it. We don’t get our license till 16. Father said, ‘No, he can’t drive the car; it’s impossible; he’s too young.’ But Mother lets me drive it. I drive it to school. Even the principal of the school uses the bus to go to work and come home. I have many uncles in top positions, so there’s no problem with my age. It’s a different place from the United States. If somebody stops me or tries to push on me, my uncles pick up the phone. ‘Don’t push on him, don’t talk to him, don’t make problems.’
“When I left school, I didn’t have to work. I spent all my time working out at the gym. I got big muscles, I went out with girls. But I want to go to America. I get a tourist visa. I’m 25 years old. I go alone, by plane. I don’t know anyone. I get a job with a moving company in Brooklyn. Off the books. I’m with them for six years, and I’m doing very well. I’m making money, I have girlfriends. I have my own apartment in Brooklyn. While working for the moving company, I meet a Puerto Rican girl. I moved her family, and that’s how I get to know the daughter. Many people say I look Puerto Rican. We start dating, we get married, and then I find out she’s a drug addict—cocaine. So I left her. I haven’t seen her in years. She doesn’t know what happened to me. Would I get married again? Who is going to marry someone like me, without legs? Anyway, technically, we’re still married. We never divorced.
“It was around 2011 when I lost my legs. Even now I can’t tell you exactly what happened. I think it was frostbite. It was during the winter. I was working in very wet, cold places. My feet start to hurt. They get swollen. I don’t pay attention. I keep on working. This goes on for three weeks, and all the time my feet are getting more and more swollen. And then one morning I try to get out of bed, and I can’t walk. I go to a doctor. The doctor tries to help me with medicines for about three months, but my feet get worse. Then the doctor says I should have my toes amputated. If the toes are amputated, I’ll be all right. I’ll need special shoes, but I’ll still have my feet, my legs. And so I sign the papers. First the right toes, then the left. But it doesn’t help. So then they amputate below the knees. If I had known what was waiting for me, I never would have signed the papers. I’d be better off dead. What kind of life is this? Anyway, nobody lives forever. Some day, no matter what, I’ll die. Today, or after 40 years. It’s almost 10 years now since the accident, and I’m still in a lot of pain. Winter is worse, but summer also I have pain. Not all the time, not 24/7. But I still have pain. Why did God do this to me? Why? What did I do? I ask myself this all the time. If I had come in sooner, when my feet started to hurt, the doctors could have saved my legs. But I waited too long.
“Do I ever think of going back to my country? No, not like this. I’m ashamed. I’m a loser. A loser! Nobody back home knows what happened to me. Father died in 1999, but Mother is still alive. She thinks I’m doing well. My cousins and uncles are all jealous of me. They would love to come to America, but it’s not so easy after 9/11. I talk to Mother a few times a week. I tell her I’m doing fine, working for the moving company. She still thinks I live in an apartment like a normal person. She doesn’t know that I go from hospital to shelter to street; hospital, shelter, street. Sometimes she sends me pictures of the family. She sends them to a friend of mine, a lawyer, who has an office here in midtown. I tell her it’s better that way, I move around too much. I feel bad. In my religion it’s a sin to lie to your mother. I eat myself up over this. But what can I do? I have no choice. I can’t tell her the truth. I would never go back to my country unless I met a billionaire who wants to give me a million dollars. Then I go back, live like a king. But if I go back home the way I am, people will talk behind my back. But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll go home with real legs. I hear there’s a doctor working on that. I hear about this from doctors at Bellevue and Cornell. It’s a very expensive thing.
“I make all my money from panhandling. I don’t know how much per hour. It’s always different. I never count. Sometimes I’m here. Sometimes I’m in Times Square. Sometimes in Central Park. Sometimes somebody else is here, or the weather is changed. Then I go down to the other corner. Do you see the roof there, the construction roof? Over the CVS? I sometimes go and sit under there. But I would like to work. I ask my friends, kind people like you, to find me a job, and they say, ‘You need papers to work. Especially for a desk job.’ And I want to work, to earn money. I see so many strong, healthy people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, who don’t want to work, who ask me for money.” He shook his head in disgust.
A hospital chaplain told me once that people want to show you their wounds. My mind went back to that comment when I asked Vladislav how his artificial legs attached, and he responded with a full-dress demonstration. Seeing the long, rusty screw fixed to the end of each of the stumps, I imagined the legs screwing on, going round and round a bunch of times until secure. And yet I knew this couldn’t be right, so how did they attach?
Vladislav, without a word, reached for his left prosthetic at the side of his wheelchair and, once he had the tall piece lined up with his stump, began pressing down with both hands on his knee, over and over, until all was snug. He then did the same with the right prosthetic, his two bare arms pumping away. When that one, too, was nice and snug, he hoisted himself to a standing position, shoulders square, head held high, surprising me with his look of vigor and his strapping height of six foot-plus.
On taking leave of Vladislav, I started on my way again, crossing 34th St. in a southerly direction. But once on the other side, I stopped and looked back. Vladislav was sitting in his wheelchair again, his two prosthetics standing free, in mute appeal, on either side of him. Now that I had some distance on the vacant storefront behind him, I was able to make out the name VICTORIA’S SECRET running across the white-tiled facade above his head. The actual letters had been stripped away, leaving behind a remnant of themselves in the form of short, twisted stubs of wires sticking out of holes in the wall. “Victoria’s Secret,” I spelled out silently, following the broken lines of these holes. And there below was Vladislav, harboring his own secret. For 10 long years, hiding from his mother the terrible accident to his lower limbs. And this one secret forcing him into a host of other subterfuges every time he talked to her and she put a personal question to him. “Vladislav dear, are you seeing any ladies?” Or “Tell me, how is your job going, dear?”
While casting my parting look from afar at the forlorn figure of Vladislav, I recalled the earlier travails of a young Welshman, William Davies, who shipped to America to seek his fortune in the waning years of the 19th century. Davies’ timing was fatefully off. He found the country in the midst of a depression, and before long he was leading the life of a hobo, under the guidance of a master at the game. For the next few years, in good hobo fashion, he traveled for free hither and thither by the risky practice of hopping trains. On one such occasion, as the train rolled out and he and a companion ran up beside it, making a bid for the baggage car, Davies met with a gruesome accident. He caught hold of the handlebar, but his foot missed the step, and meanwhile the train was gathering speed. He was dragged along for several yards before his hand relinquished its grip, and he ended up lying dazed on the ground. The train moved on, along with the friend, who’d made it safely onto the car. A few minutes later, on coming to his senses, Davies tried in vain to stand. In his bafflement, he sat up straight, and carefully searching his body over, soon found the cause of his sudden incapacity: his right foot was severed neatly from the ankle.
Davies lived to tell the story in his classic work of hobohemia, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. The book goes on to describe his struggles to eke out a living for himself as a poet. And right off the bat, on leaving the hospital, minus a foot but aided by crutches, he embarked on a voyage back home to Wales for a period of readjustment to his lot. If he felt like a loser, he doesn’t say. =Nor does he dwell on the reception he got. But there he was at his mother’s door, as if fulfilling his role to the last in the Parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son.
Recalling that pivotal moment in the book, I had an urge to run back over and plead with Vladislav to go see his mother—to fly back home and show himself at his mother’s door, come what may. And if, as I suspected, he didn’t have the air fare, I’d pay for his ticket out of my stash of 13 C-notes still at the house. I had them ready to go in an envelope tucked away in the drawer of my nightstand. Yes, he should definitely go see his mother, who was up in her 70s and wouldn’t live forever; and filled with visions of their tearful reunion, I took a step in the son’s direction as the green pedestrian light came on.
But then I remembered a second comment shared with me by that hospital chaplain, speaking of the patients under his care. “We’re not here to solve their problems,” he said. “We’re here,” he said, “to accompany them.”
Recalling those words, I turned on my heels and continued on with the rest of my day.