Wandering the streets of Philadelphia one rainy night, I asked a couple exiting their historic brick home where I could find a good place to eat. They recommended a few restaurants, warning me which were BYOB. Being both naive and a non-drinker, I hesitated, “Um . . . BYOB?” “Bring your own beer,” they chuckled. I found City Tavern where the Founding Fathers debated the principles of liberty while smoking and sipping madeira, and ordered Martha Washington’s chicken pot pie. My tummy warm and full (and my wallet drained), I set off through the cold drizzle to my hotel. Steam snaked eerily up from the holes in the sewer manhole lids. The wet air was growing more frigid. I stepped round a cobbled corner into a narrow alley and came upon a man lying in a fetal ball on a sewer manhole lid, soaking up what little heat he could from the sewer vapors, sheltered from the rain by wilted cardboard. This short poem remembers him.
SLEEPING ON A SEWER MANHOLE
A cold rain in April.
Steam rising from the sewer through a cratered manhole lid.
A brother curled up, rolling restlessly, capturing wet warmth under his blankets
under an evening rain.
What difference will $1 make to the poor, the homeless? None. I’m not talking about the professional panhandler, who can make a good enough living. I’m talking about the humble poor, who really need help, but who often don’t ask. I gave such a woman $1 once, knowing guiltily that my contribution did nothing to help her solve her problems. I only hope that my attempt at kindness made a difference in her heart. She sat rocking, nursing her pains, at a bus stop on Broad Street in Philadelphia. Back in my warm hotel room, this is what I wrote.
WOMAN AT A BROAD STREET BUS STOP
She rocked on a Broad Street bench
rubbing a leg through blue and green blankets.
Tears quietly cut her brown face.
Liquid eyes shone
upon each oblivious observer, pleaded
unheard for spontaneous compassion.
No cup or turned over hat called for
a casually cast coin.
“Could you use a dollar?” I ventured.
“Oh, yes,” she whispered. “I need to buy medicine.
I have such pain.”
She rubbed and she wept.
She asked for nothing.
What use is a lousy dollar! What use
are a hundred lousy dollars!
And she asked for nothing.
“God bless you, sir,” she cried
as she rocked and rubbed her aches through her blankets.
She asked for nothing.
I spent hours in the evenings walking the streets of Philadelphia while there on business. Around City Hall and the Masonic Temple, both architectural masterpieces. Along Benjamin Franklin Boulevard toward the Museum of Art, with its steps made famous by Rocky Balboa. On the banks of the dirty Schuykill River. By the famous LOVE sculpture. Down Walnut, Chestnut, and Market Streets in the historic quarter. In many places I saw homeless people, in desperate condition, sleeping mid-day in parks wrapped in dirty sleeping bags and blankets, crouched in cardboard shelters under the South Street bridge. One wizened man with wild beard and hair squatted with his back against a Wachovia bank wall, holding out his empty coffee cup for coins, staring blankly at the multitudinous passing feet, but seeing nothing. In my hotel, haunted by these images, I wrote this poem.
Only the cup and knee-knobs
of crossed legs showed themselves
to the thousands of preoccupied pedestrians.
He sat tucked tidily
into a Wachovia wall,
out of the way.
The cardboard cup held 3 pennies
and a ring of dried coffee stain.
“It’s cold today,” I said and stopped,
68 smug cents now
in the cup of the blue-capped man.
His gap-tooth smile jumped from a thick grey beard,
and two clear eyes saw into mine:
Thank you. Yes,
it is a cold day.