THE heart of New York City is the Grand Central area. Flanking the west side of the complex is Vanderbilt Avenue, a small side street named after one of America's railroad tycoons. It was on Vanderbilt Avenue the other night that I saw something that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. A line of people four or five deep was stretched half way around the block. Such lines in New York City are not uncommon. Most of them lead up to the box offices of motion picture theaters. But there are no theaters or other entertainment centers on or near Vanderbilt Avenue. Moreover, I perceived no forward motion in the line.
The people looked like a cross section of Hometown, USA. If you had seen them queued up for admission to a World Series baseball game, or an outdoor concert, they would have seemed in place. What were these typical Americans waiting to do? I put the question to a young man standing in line.
``This, sir,'' he said, ``is what is known as a bread line. We're waiting for food.''
He could probably tell from my startled expression that I might not have heard him correctly, for he spelled it out.
``We're waiting for trucks to arrive with food,'' he said, matter-of-factly.
``How long have you been waiting?''
``A few hours. Some people here have been waiting longer than that.''
I looked at the couples with their sleepy-eyed children. ``Isn't it pretty late for food to be distributed?'' I asked.
``No one here would object to getting a food package at a decent hour,'' he said with a half-smile.
I asked him where these people would spend the night. The young man didn't seem reluctant to tell me the facts of life. Most of the people belonged to the community of the homeless. They had lost their jobs or their savings or both and had no place to go.
The newspapers on which some were sitting carried stories of record Wall Street stock market highs.
The advertising columns heralded hotel suites at up to $3,000 for a single night, cigars up to $160 a box, perfumes at $500 an ounce. And, of course, the reports of Malcolm Forbes's birthday bash at a cost of $1 million-plus.
Some months ago, American editorialists were surprised that the Chinese leaders had allowed themselves to become so separated from the desires of their people that the tragedy in Tiananmen Square occurred.
Potential Tiananmen Squares abound in America. The Dow Jones averages and high property values conceal the rapidity with which the long lines of the hungry and homeless could become the combustibles of the largest social and political eruptions the United States has known. Massive military spending in the name of security obscures the towering fact that the basic threat to America today is hunger, homelessness, squalor.
George Bush, as I can testify from personal acquaintance that goes back almost three decades, is a good and compassionate man.
But I fear that the kind of support he required and solicited in order to gain his party's nomination may have made it difficult for him to be true to himself.
Newspaper photographs show the President playing golf at a Maine resort. There is nothing wrong in a golfing vacation, especially in Maine. But unless Mr. Bush also rubs shoulders with the people on the bread lines, feels in his bones their deprivation and desperation, and wants to split the sky with indignation over these abominations, his administration will not help to produce the ``kinder, gentler America'' he says we need. Bush will come full-size as a president the day he picks up a skinny kid with a distended stomach and realizes what a rededicated presidency requires.
But the problem does not belong to the president alone. A mobilization of mercy by government will not begin without a public clamor of conscience.
Inevitably, the reaction to such a clamor will refer to prohibitive costs. No cry would go up about costs if it became necessary to construct barracks for soldiers on American soil. No cry goes up over the fact that it now costs about $80,000 to kill a single enemy soldier. Is saving the life of a single American citizen worth less?
The central problem confronting us is not cost by conscience. We are so swollen with meaningless satisfactions today that we have become separated from our larger selves. It is not just that we are in danger of losing the American future. The greater danger is that we may be losing our souls.