A Humbling Conversation With Joe

Homeless man on sidewalk.

Whenever I hopped on a subway car and noticed a homeless person, I would walk to the other end of the car as quickly as possible, waiting for the train to stop so I can move into the next car. If I saw homeless people on the streets, I would avoid eye contact and hold my breath until there was enough distance between us.

Ming Hu, eye.

I hate being asked for money; I felt above them; and their odors made me vomit. Homeless people are despicable. They’re homeless because they had a poor work ethic and should get a job to get out of the situation they put themselves in. Panhandlers and beggars are all scam artists.

That was my attitude until I met Joe.

The cosmos were knocking down fate’s dominoes for me. I reluctantly left a ridiculously expensive New Year’s Eve party at the Gansevoort Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City right after midnight to do a favor for a friend, but had nowhere to go for a few hours until the rest of my friends could meet me in Ktown. It was cold; I had a lot of baggage with me; and my phone was on the brink of death.

I walked by Kyochon and was drawn by the warmth and the throngs of people inside. I scanned the room for outlets. Everyone was coupled off, except this one white guy with tattoos on his arms, wearing a winter hat, with his backpack sitting on a chair to his right. The seat to his left was empty, but perhaps he was waiting for someone. He had a buzzer, clearly waiting for his food, and playing with his old school flip cell phone. I walked toward him and asked, “Do you mind if I sit here and charge my phone?”

“Yeah, sure”, he said.

I plopped down and plugged in.

I started thanking him as it was a relief for me to charge my phone so I can stay connected with the world. He revealed to me how he thought it was nice of me to even ask. I was a little puzzled. “What kind of impolite assholes do you come in contact with?”, I thought. Instead I asked more politely, “Why wouldn’t people ask?”. He responded with, “People usually just see me, walk away, and sit somewhere far away from me”.

I had the impression he was a backpacker, so maybe he smelled or something, but I didn’t smell anything offensive. Then I quickly thought maybe his tattoos were ominous to others, but I quickly abandoned that idea because people in New York City are more open minded than that. He could tell I was confused and when I asked him why people would do that, he revealed to me he was homeless. I fell silent. I didn’t know what to say because I find the homeless offensive, but this guy didn’t look or seem homeless to me at all. I didn’t know what to think and I didn’t want to be rude or seem like I’m uncomfortable, so I made conversation.

We ended up talking for an hour, and when he left, he introduced himself as Joe and shook my hand.

Homeless bearded man in baseball cap.

Not Joe.

“What’s your story? How did you end up homeless because you don’t look like the typical homeless guy?”, I asked.

Joe used to be a steam fitter outside of the city, somewhere upstate. I had to ask him what a steam fitter was. A steam fitter maintains, repairs, and fabricates piping systems. After doing some research online, steamfitters usually have to endure 4 or 5 years of apprenticeship before getting licensed. This means, this guy is no joke. After getting laid off, he couldn’t find another job for a while, then his wife divorced him for another man who just so happens to be employed. Joe left upstate to go to New York City to find employment. I was confused by his choice; New York City is one of the most expensive cities to live in. Joe stayed in New York because it’s familiar; he knows the ins and outs. That made sense to me.

We also covered his family. Joe has a 6 year old son who he doesn’t talk to anymore, but misses a lot. I asked him if he is allowed to talk to his son since his wife might be a little sensitive about his circumstances. To my surprise, his wife has been telling his son that “There are lot of homeless people in Florida and Daddy is there building houses for them” instead of “Daddy is dead”. I ask Joe if he is happy with this story that she painted for him. “Yes, but my son is starting to be inquisitive and asking questions like ‘Even if Daddy is in Florida, why can’t I talk to him on the phone?'”. Joe became so much more human when I heard this.

I asked Joe how he pays for food, especially the rather expensive Kyochon meal. He does try to find odd jobs here and there and he keeps a prepaid cell phone for this purpose. Funny enough, Joe is homeless, but he still complains about AT&T coverage. He seeks jobs he’s familiar with in construction. When he can’t find anything, he is panhandling. Joe usually eats pizza because it’s cheap, but he gets tired of it and splurges on something like the Kyochon meal. He actually offered me some because he couldn’t finish it. I was amused and touched by this offer. Despite his situation, his generosity is still alive and kicking. I thank him, but urge him to save it for his next meal. He is persistent with his generosity, but with embarrassment, I explain, “I have a very first world problem. I’m trying to stay away from food to lose some weight”, hoping this will end the offers. He chuckles, “I understand”. Joe’s sense of humor humbled me.

Our conversation was so genuine and free flowing that I started asking him anything. “How many of the panhandlers out there aren’t legitimately homeless?”, I asked. Apparently, I hit a nerve and Joe went on a rant. He knows a lot of them are scam artists and he personally knows some of them. I asked him how I can identify them, so, perhaps, I can actually help those who do truly need help, like Joe. Apparently, you can look at their shoes. If they’re new, they are definitely not homeless. I ask about the beggars who have their children with them. He tells me they are definitely not homeless. They’re gypsies and panhandling is part of their culture. I’m not sure which ethnic group he was referring to, but I let him continue since he was ranting. He’s seen their husbands drop them off and pick them up in fancy cars to their begging corners. I ask about the homeless and the pets. He passionately told me how he hates seeing this scenario and that some of them are just using their pets to get money. Some of them are truly homeless, but some aren’t.

Joe doesn’t like to go to shelters because since he’s white and most people in shelters are non-white, he runs into problems. Once he got beat up really badly in a shelter for his sneakers. He goes to a Church on the Upper East Side often to sleep. Since he doesn’t smell like the typical homeless man, I ask how he stays clean. He says he wipes down in the Church bathroom or befriends doormen who can let him shower at the residential buildings. Joe recently befriended a gay man who he knew had a crush on him. I was impressed. Joe is smart. He works his assets. This guy has always told Joe that he wanted to help him out, and Joe told him he could be a huge help if he could let him shower at his apartment a few times a week, but made it clear he wouldn’t do anything sexual in return.

Since Joe has a phone, I assumed maybe he also has a bank account. He told me he once had only $94 and needed to pan handle the rest of the $6 to meet the minimum balance to be able to open a bank account, but once he realized he wouldn’t be able to freely access that $100, he abandoned the idea. I asked him about his belongings. He has this mummy sleeping bag that’s warm enough even for the Arctic. He pan handled 6 months to buy that. He also had some kind of blanket that was made from recycled material that keeps him warm and dry in any kind of weather, even rain.

“Do you get offended when people don’t give you money when you panhandle?”, I ask. Without hesitation, he said, “No, it’s their choice to give or not and it’s okay if they don’t want to”. What upsets him the most is people who tell him to get a job or are very sarcastic. Once a guy took out a wad of cash and pretended to give him money, but once he was close enough to Joe’s cup, the guy quickly pulled away and laughed. I was so disgusted by this story. People don’t have to be mean to a perfect stranger.

At the end our conversation, as he leaves and thanks me for my time, Joe didn’t even ask me for any money. He wished me a good night and a happy new year. Joe walked into my life in that one hour and made a lasting impression.

Homeless Jesus Christmas Eve 2011. Photo by Max Weber.

Image: Max Weber

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