On 43rd Street, along Fulton Sheen Place, a block from Grand Central and next to Market Café, office workers stand in clusters smoking and eating pizza. Here, youll find the St. Agnes soup kitchen, where you can join the homeless and the hungry for a free meal a few times a week.
And when I walk down that crowded street, I often encounter a homeless man standing by the street lamp, watching the confluence of passersby and waiting for a handout.
Even though thousands of people rush past every afternoon, he becomes especially animated when he sees me coming and starts shouting, "YOU! YOU in the bow tie! Over here! Cmon over here, I wanna talk to YOU!"
Like a skittish suburbanite out of his element in midtown Manhattan, I do exactly what my cautious mother always advised me to do: I dont make eye contact, I keep staring straight ahead and I quicken my pace.
Of course, this hubbub draws even more attention to me because everyone on that bustling sidewalk pauses to see who the guy in the bow tie is. Pee-wee Herman, perhaps?
I admit I started wearing bow ties to stand out in the crowd, so all things considered, I got my wish in a perverted sort of way. I got more than my wish, and now I wish I werent so conspicuous because this was NOT what I wanted.
Very quickly, this public performance became a daily occurrence. In desperation, I considered alternate measures, like switching to a necktie, which meant Id have to retire 100 or so bow ties and sell them on eBay at a considerable loss. Or maybe I could simply cross over to the other side of the street to avoid the unwanted attention.
But I did neither. Instead, I bit my tongue and walked faster, which didnt really help the situation.
"YOU in the bow tie! Over here! A man looks sharp in a bow tie! I wanna talk to you!"
I couldnt imagine what he wanted to talk about. Mayor Bloombergs job performance? The latest U.N. resolution?
This went on for a few weeks, and every day the commotion got worse until it became apparent I was as obsessed with avoiding him as he was with getting my attention.
Then one day, suddenly, mysteriously, marvelously, I got this overwhelming pang of guilt call it grace and I thought of that very troubling story about Francis of Assisi, the young bon vivant, the heir to the family fortune, the man with a dreadful fear of lepers.
Outside of town, there was a lepers colony, and one morning when he was riding along the plains, Francis came upon a leper with sores all over his body. He wanted to ride away, but something held him there, and despite his revulsion, he got off the horse, gave the leper all his money, kissed him and embraced him.
O.K., I confess. I wasnt ready for a spiritual conversion of that magnitude. I wanted to start slowly. No lepers for at least six months.
On Monday, I wove in and out of the pedestrians on that hectic Manhattan street, and when I approached the man, he called out, "Bow tie!" I paused for a moment and walked up to him. He smiled and offered me a cigarette.
"Dont you know those things will kill you?" I said.
Then, I reached into my pocket for five bucks I wasnt ready to give him all my cash because I still needed something to help bail out Wall Street.
"Stay out of trouble," I said.
Now, when I see him, I go out of my way to give him something. (Hey, at least he stopped yelling.)
The entire ordeal reminded me I have a long way to go to get to where I should be. Of course, I have no intention of following in Francis footsteps. I dont have the courage or the commitment, and Im a weak man who loves money more than generosity.
But change is slow, and theres no telling where it will lead us. Consider that crazy Francis. After his encounter, he started visiting lepers in hospitals and then made a pilgrimage to Rome and left all his money at St. Peters tomb.
When he walked outside, beggars swarmed around him like a flock of pigeons competing for a few crumbs of bread. Since he had no money left, he took off his clothes and gave them to the poorest man in the crowd.
In exchange, he took the beggars rags to wear, and for the rest of the day, he stood in the square, his hand out, begging for coins because he wanted to understand the humiliation the poor endure.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.