Early on a Friday morning, a man walks into a convenience store and buys a six-pack of beer. He hands the clerk a few bills and walks back to his spot on the street, eager to start the morning buzz. Choudrey is a fifty-seven year old Pakistani man who has been living on the streets for the past ten days ever since he got out of jail. He is wearing a stripped blue and green button up shirt, some wool slacks and black shoes. Choudrey previously drove a taxi, but his alcohol addiction caused him to lose his job and end up in jail.
After finishing the beer, sustenance is the next order of business. Choudrey hears rumors that there is free food available on 28th street and 9th Avenue and so he slowly makes his way westward to fill his belly. In his taxicab, Choudrey could have made the trip in a matter of moments, but on foot the journey takes him awhile longer. He may not have much money, but at least he has lots of time.
Turning a corner, Choudrey spots a white bus parked beneath the shade of Chelsea Park. As he reaches the end of the line, an intoxicating aroma reminds him that he hasn’t eaten anything all day long. When he finally reaches the front of the line, Choudrey receives some soup, bread, lemonade and a smile. He takes his meal and sits quietly in a chair to the side.
As I arrive in Penn Station, I know this day will be out of the ordinary. Six years ago, I spent a day on the streets of NYC as part of the Acumen Fellowship program and I’ve resolved to repeat the experience today. I walk down the street actively searching for any ways I can be helpful. I finally spot a homeless man who is trying to move six carts of belongings by himself. I walk up to him to ask if I can help. He gladly accepts my offer and I follow him to his destination. We introduce ourselves and he mentions that later on that morning a food truck would be handing out free food at the corner of 28th street. I decide to check out the spot to see if I can be useful.
To my delight, I find the food truck in question is in fact the Relief Bus, a New Jersey-based non-profit that for 20 years has been serving the poor of New Jersey and New York. I help the team set up for lunch and then begin to talk to the people around me. Colin is from Guyana. Annie is from the Caribbean although she won’t tell me from where exactly. John lives in Brooklyn. Then, I spot Choudrey, sitting inconspicuously to the side. I introduce myself and we begin to converse. It is quickly apparent that Choudrey is quite intelligent. I discover he’s originally from Karachi, Pakistan and I share that I lived in Karachi as well. We reminisce about mango season in Pakistan.
Choudrey shares with me his story. He’s ashamed that he hasn’t taken a shower in 10 days. He’s ashamed that he is living on the streets. He’s ashamed that he was in prison. I find out that he has a sister in Long Island and friends here in New York City, but he doesn’t want to bother any of them. His pride and shame keep him alienated from his support community. Choudrey says he would like to go through detox and I mention that the Relief Bus has contacts that can help him. We talk with Paul Ballesteros, the Relief Bus outreach coordinator, who calls a friend who confirms that she can pick up Choudrey in 30 minutes. Before he leaves, Choudrey and I talk about his dream to own a limousine. I encourage him to look forward instead of wallowing in the past. Suddenly, a red mini-van pulls up across the street and I walk Choudrey to the door. We shake hands and the van whisks Choudrey away to detox.
This is just one of many stories that filled my day on the streets of New York. Some interactions were as simple as complimenting a fellow train passenger’s sunglasses while others involved buying groceries for a former Mets baseball player living on the streets. In all I had more than 25 interactions with people during the day. While on this day, I tried to actively seek out people in need around me, I wonder about the tens of thousands of people in need that I’ve passed by over the years. I am incredibly blessed yet all too often oblivious to the need around me. It’s so easy to drown out the world with my white ear buds. By helping just one person every day from the age of 10, the average American would impact the lives of over 25,000 people. Is there a Choudrey that you are passing by? Try your own day on the streets and see where it takes you. #blessedandoblivious
Photo Credit: Joel Montgomery, Jim Fischer