Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

I Walked over the Drunk Homeless Man: He Wasn't the Deserving Poor, Was He? (Now What?)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

I Walked over the Drunk Homeless Man: He Wasn't the Deserving Poor, Was He? (Now What?)

Article excerpt

Some years ago, I stayed in Manhattan with a drama school colleague. This girl, a teen soap sensation, was also a very spoilt lesbian heiress with her own apartment on Park Avenue. After two nights, I admitted to her that the endless whine of police sirens was terrifying to a suburban Brit. She shrugged slim shoulders and said, "You'll get used to it." Milly had "never in my life" used public transport or ventured "downtown".

I stayed in New York for three sweltering weeks in abject luxury. It didn't take as long as I'd feared (hoped?) to become immune to the box-dwellers' plight or the tragedy of the vastly obese black lady on the corner selling all her belongings "for less than five bucks". We spent our days and nights whizzing via cab between cocktail bar and flashy club. On Milly's doorstep, we were greeted obsequiously by the uniformed concierge--soon the sirens became little less than the soundtrack to my exciting Big Apple adventure.

One afternoon, I did something that has loitered on my conscience for over a decade. I walked not just past, but over, someone in serious need of help. On the corner of our block, an old man in the hobo uniform of grey tatty suit and mismatched shoes lay in the centre of the pavement, immobile. It was a busy day and it was almost impossible to avoid stepping on him.

"Nah," said Milly. "He's just a drunk." We were steps away now. There was a puddle of urine leaking from his pants. No bottle of liquor was in sight.

"Oh my god," I said as we approached that poor man. "We should do something."

As I stepped over his outstretched, puffy right arm, I saw the blood. "Oh my god. Maybe he's been shot. Help! Help!"

My friend put her hand over my mouth and we were pushed down the avenue by those behind us desperate to get away from the human detritus. …

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