The Open Hand

I was walking home from work two days ago when I came across an elderly woman standing on the sidewalk with a luggage bag beside her.  She reached out her cupped hand and said, “Please.  I’m very hungry.”  

In New York, many people ask for money, but certain people catch my attention. This woman, I guessed, was in her 70’s.  She looked East Asian, but I don’t think she was Chinese (maybe Tibetan, Bhutanese or Nepalese?).  She looked cold.

In very New York fashion, I got straight to the point:  “Why are you like this?  Do you have a home, or is there anyone you can call?”  (Some elderly people suffer from dementia.)  

“No,” she said, and then again, “Please. I’m very hungry.”  

I asked, “Do you have any family?”  

She said, “My son.  My son.”  

“Can you call him?”

“No,” she said and shook her head and didn’t say any more.  I realized it was a private matter.  Perhaps she had gotten kicked out of the home, or perhaps she had left.  

I paused and asked, “Where are you going to sleep tonight?” 

“The laundry room.  I will sleep in the laundry room.”  I didn’t know which laundry room she was referring to.  There are laundromats that are open 24 hours a day, and I guessed that’s what she meant.

“Can you call your son?” I asked again.  

“No.”  She paused a bit.  “My son changes his phone number every day.  He plays poker.  You know poker?  He plays poker every day.  He loses money.”  

I understood now that, whatever the case may be, I shouldn’t and didn’t need to ask any more questions.  I opened my purse and found two $5 bills and gave them to her. She bowed very deeply. 

I thought of inviting this woman to my home, at least for a night.  The truth is, with a poor economy, I am already supporting one friend who has been living with me and have two long-time friends (a couple) arriving this weekend to stay at my place who are not in good financial circumstances.  I have a one bedroom apartment with one bathroom, a small kitchen. 

But it was painful to see someone who was elderly and probably a proud person begging for money.  I thought to myself, No, I do not need to take on more than what I am dealing with now.  

Then a thought came across my mind – only several blocks away, there is a huge community center that helps the elderly and immigrants.  I pointed out the way, only two blocks up, three blocks left, a big building on the corner.

“They may be able to help you.  You may be able to find yourself in a better position.”

Again, she bowed very deeply.  I began to walk home.  Perhaps I should have at least walked this woman to the community center.  But I was so tired after work that day that I did not.  Also, I know people are very resourceful when they need to be.  I need to take care of myself also.

I have known for a long time that many Chinese people have problems with gambling.  If you walk into a casino, you can see whole areas that cater to Chinese people.   I have known people in my extended family who have gambled and lost a lot.  And, unfortunately, I know many sad stories of Chinese people who have lost everything because of their gambling habits.

There are many misfortunes in this world.  You can’t help everyone.  In New York City, I tend to be mindful about giving money because many homeless use the money to buy drugs or alcohol (although I don’t have anything against people buying alcohol per se).  But I don’t think this woman was trying to take advantage of me or anyone else.  I could be wrong.

I do hope she has been able to find a place where she can feel safe and warm.  What would it have cost me to have her in my home for one or two nights?  Actually, I feel a bit sorry, but then life is what it is, and I think the best thing is to concentrate my limited resources on the people who are close to me.  

I don’t expect to change the world, but I can make a little difference, perhaps, in the lives of a few people who matter the most and also in daily, small interactions where, hopefully, I can put a smile on someone’s face, even if only for a brief moment.