The snow is falling, and the world is quiet. I feel like the only person left in the world. Snow absorbs sound, bringing a quiet that only comes with the snow. I stand on my porch, watching the snowflakes flutter in the streetlights and fall to the ground. I start to get cold after a while, and I go back into the darkness of the house. I hear a Christmas song, and I remember that I’d left the TV on in the bedroom. It’s a commercial for a charity, and the song is sad. The ad ends, and it’s replaced with another. This one is for diamonds. The sad pictures and pleas of the charity are quickly forgotten, and replaced by a happy couple and a huge diamond ring. The problems of the world are erased by a happy family opening gifts on a Christmas morning.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and there’s no place like New York during the holidays. My family wasn’t well off, but we had the basics. At Christmas, my mother would decorate the tree by herself (she insisted on that), but we didn’t mind. My brother and I were more interested in what would be under the tree, not with what was on it. I was about 13 years old when my friend Julia told me that she and her father were going to the city (that’s NY speak for Manhattan) to shop and look at the amazing Christmas window displays. She wanted me to go with her and her dad, and I couldn’t be happier. I’d gone to see the window displays once when I was much younger, and I wanted to see them again.
After lots of begging and bargaining, my mother finally gave me permission to go to Manhattan with Julia and her father. My mother never liked Julia’s family, and to this day, I’ve never found out why. I woke up extra early on the day of the trip. Julia came upstairs to our apartment and told me that her father was waiting for us downstairs. We were taking the subway into Manhattan. I grabbed my little purse with the 34 dollars that I’ve saved in it. I was so happy to be going on a special trip with my friend.
I never liked the subway, but Julia’s dad refused to drive into Manhattan. Manhattan is crowded and the traffic is horrible—my father was the same way. Julia, her father, and I arrived in Manhattan a little before 11 a.m. Her father took us to a little diner for a quick bite and then we walked to the Macy’s on 34th Street. The windows were amazing, and I took some pictures of the windows with the camera that I got the previous Christmas. The day was perfect…until it wasn’t.
While we walked, I saw many people sitting and sleeping on the sidewalks. As a child growing up in NYC, I was used to seeing homeless people on the street, the subways, and in doorways. However, what took place that day when I was 13 had a profound effect on me. Julia and I were looking at one of the Christmas windows near Rockefeller Center, and we decided to ask her dad if he’d take us ice skating. Julia’s father was looking at a window that was a few steps away from us. Julia went to ask her dad, and I stayed behind. I suddenly heard Julia’s father yelling at someone, but he wasn’t yelling at Julia. He was yelling at a man who was wearing a shabby coat, and boots that looked like they were falling apart. The man was selling a newspaper for the homeless, and all he did was ask if Julia’s dad would like to buy one. It was a publication much like the one you’re reading now.
Julia’s dad was telling the man to get away from him, and to get a “real job”. The shouting and abuse continued for only a couple of minutes, but it felt like forever to me. The homeless man wasn’t yelling back at Julia’s father, but just stood there with his papers in a state of shock. I stood there myself and watched in horror as Julia’s dad grabbed the man’s papers and threw them in a puddle, ruining them. He then spit on the man and called him trash before he walked away. Before I followed Julia and her dad, I apologized to the man, who was trying to salvage some of his papers from the puddle. I took out some bills from my purse, and gave them to him. I couldn’t walk away without doing something, even if I knew that I couldn’t take his pain and humiliation away. The man smiled at me and said that it was okay, and that he was used to people like my “dad”. I made sure to tell him that this person was not my father. I didn’t want to be associated with anyone so cruel and ugly. I ran to catch up with Julia and her father, who walked on without noticing that I stayed behind to help the paper seller. I couldn’t believe what I’d just witnessed. I didn’t understand why Julia’s dad reacted this way to someone who was just trying to make a living. Not just screaming at this poor man, but destroying his papers, so he couldn’t make any money that day.
Julia’s dad took us ice skating, and I went along, but I was just going through the motions. All I wanted to do was go home. I felt utter disgust and anger. Julia didn’t react at all to what had happened. She was just her usual happy self, and I guessed that her father’s behavior was the norm to her. She asked her father if we could go to FAO Schwartz and other places. I just smiled politely, said please and thank you, but I hurt inside.
The outing was coming to an end, but not before one more incident took place. We were taking the subway back to Brooklyn, and as we entered the station, we saw several police officers going in and out, as well as an ambulance. I thought that someone must’ve gotten hurt. We continued walking towards the Brooklyn side of the station. Julia’s father was curious about what was going on, and he stopped a young police officer to ask him about the situation. The officer told him that a homeless woman had frozen to death in a dark corner of the platform. The weather was pretty frigid at that time in NYC, and she had just fallen asleep and never woke up.
I was hurt by what I’d heard from the young officer, and I just wanted to walk away, but couldn’t. Julia’s dad laughed at what the officer was telling him, and said, “All this for a frozen rat?? God, I thought it was a human being that was hurt when I saw the ambulance!” I saw the look on the police officer’s face, a look of utter disgust at what he was hearing. He shook his head and walked away from Julia’s father. Her dad asked, “What’s his problem?” and to my surprise, Julia laughed as we walked down to the subway platform to wait for the Brooklyn-bound train.
That night, I felt immense sadness, not just for what I had seen, but because I didn’t understand my friend’s insensitivity to what was happening. My friendship with Julia never survived that day in Manhattan. I didn’t understand her lack of compassion for the people we came across on our trip there. My mother asked me why I didn’t see Julia as much anymore, and I never gave her a straight answer. I didn’t want to tell her about Julia’s father and his lack of compassion for his fellow human beings.
I’ve thought about the events of that day through the years. I thought about the man selling the papers, and the woman that froze to death. I wondered what they were like as children, if they had siblings, and what could’ve happened that left them homeless and destitute on the streets of New York? I think about that day often. I think about how the red, green, and gold of the season hides the painful realities that many don’t want to see and acknowledge. My wish is for us to have mercy on each other and to be grateful for what we have. Love is the best gift we can give each other. Happy holidays, everyone.