Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Broken People Cast onto the Island of Misfit Toys

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Broken People Cast onto the Island of Misfit Toys

Article excerpt

As surely as crocuses budding above the still cold earth are a sign of spring, the slumped men along the corridors of Penn Station in Manhattan are a sign of winter. As the weather turns cold for real -- not just a day or two of near-freezing weather -- the numbers of these lost men increase.

Walk early enough through Penn Station, and it can be overwhelming. Just past the evening rush, it is bad enough. I come out through one of the NJ Transit concourses into the no-man's land that exists between NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road on the lower level of the station. The polished marble of NJ Transit gives way to old tiles and cement patches.

The LIRR areas are gentrified. A Shake Shack just opened. There's a Magnolia Bakery. But the back corridors of Penn are removed from all of that. If there is any commerce, it is the occasional tossing of coins on dirty blankets. It is one of those corridors I take to get to the No. 2 subway. On any given evening, there are at least five to six men on the ground. They lie like mounds of earth at a primitive cemetery.

The poor will always be among us. I learned that in Sunday school. I have never been sure whether that was supposed to awaken something in our young souls that would chart us on a course to help those in need or rather, to make us feel OK about not doing enough, as if helping the poor was akin to bailing out a foundering ship: an exercise in futility.

It's Christmas so the urge to do something tugs like the ghost of something past. When I was a boy, it was worse in New York -- not just in train and bus stations but on the streets. People lived in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks. By my 20s, the ubiquitous "squeegee men" patrolled Manhattan like a citizen's brigade. The squeegee men were at least mobile. The men on the floor of Penn Station are heaps of rags, bags and dirt. But they are -- as I am reminded in this season of joy -- children of God. They never did teach us in Sunday school how to fix broken people. …

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