THESE past four years I have been the Wednesday night van driver for the Coalition for the Homeless food project in New York City. Each night of the year, volunteers provide food to 600 homeless people outside Grand Central Terminal and at other sites in the city. Whatever the benefit of the program to homeless people, through my participation I have become a different person. You cannot help but change after looking into the faces of thousands and thousands of the city's poor.
New York City is the place where I was born, grew up, have always lived, and plan to live in the future. Participation in this project has made me feel closer to my city and its residents then ever before.
Driving a van all over Manhattan, I have come to know the streets of the city as well as any taxi cab driver. New York is a place of such vast beauty. Stately bridges linking the islands of the city to each other. City Hall (the adjoining park is our first stop). The illuminated spire of the Chrysler Building as seen from the United Nations (another stop). Grand Central Terminal. Each building is a work of art. I think to myself, ``How fortunate I am to live in such a place.''
But there is another side to the city: the poverty of many New Yorkers. On 43rd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, at 9:00 p.m., over 300 people, mostly young black and Hispanic men, but also women, children, and older men, stand in line. We hand out food (sandwiches, milk, juice, and fruit), first to the women, children, and older men, and then to the others. A few of the people in line have been waiting there for hours. For some, this may be the only meal of the day.
The most fortunate of the people in line are those temporarily down on their luck. Like so many New Yorkers without savings or other resources to fall back on, they are only a paycheck away from homelessness. With initiative, they will find another job.
Then there are the many walking wounded of the city. They are homeless for one or more of these reasons: a severe shortage of low income housing; the dislocation resulting from the change to a service economy; the absence of adequate mental health facilities, and the drug epidemic. Even with lots of help, which few now receive, they will continue to experience a very rough time.
Through my work in this program, poverty has ceased to be an abstraction, a mere collection of government statistics. Instead, it has become flesh and blood; it seizes you in the heart and gut.
When you see, close-up, people living in dire straits, you can't help but become a more serious person, increasingly aware of the human condition which, to me, seems pretty parlous. Certainly, I have become a more grateful person. In the past, I have taken so many things for granted. Now I no longer say, ``Time to go home,'' without realizing how truly fortunate I am. Also, a less fearful person in terms of working with the sometimes difficult people in line. Indeed, I find we share many things in common: humor, anger, sadness. And a prouder person, not because for one moment do I delude myself into thinking that I am solving anyone's problems by handing out a miserable sandwich, but at least I have not resigned myself to the existing disorder in our society.
This activity has affected even my reading of literature. Before my involvement in the project, these lines from ``David Copperfield'' would not have had anything near the same impact. ``Sleep came upon me,'' relates the homeless David, ``as it came on many other outcasts, against whom house-doors were locked, and house-dogs barked that night....'' And when he has found a refuge: ``I remember how I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I slept, and how I prayed that I never might be houseless any more, and never might forget the houseless.''
In the third stanza of ``America, the Beautiful,'' we sing of alabaster cities gleaming ``Undimmed by human tears!'' Vanderbilt Avenue and 43rd Street each evening is a place awash with tears.
Yet even under these unpromising conditions, hope survives. There are very few people in line who have given up, who don't want to try to bring order out of the present disorder in their lives.
Every Wednesday night I remind myself of the words of Rene Dubos, the eminent microbiologist and humanist: ``Wherever human beings are concerned, trend is never destiny.''
Nothing is foreordained. People, ideas, and resources can make a difference. Each of us can make a difference.