By Seth Kushner
The portions were enormous. Though we’d managed to make a dent, our plates still heaped with saucy barbqued delights. We were full and not wanting to waste food, so we asked our waiter to please wrap it all up to go.
As we walked the streets of Manhattan, I decided I didn’t want to be saddled with the brown paper to-go bag all night. We were going to a show, one which required standing for 70 minutes, followed by drinks at a hotel bar, then a subway ride home. The food might not even be good by the time we reached our refrigerator later that night, I reasoned.
My friend Carlos agreed, not wanting to carry a bag either. Our wives, clearing remembering their parents drilling into their young brains that “children were starving in Africa”, told us we couldn’t simply toss the bag.
Yes, these are middle class problems.
Carlos had an idea. “Let’s give the food to a homeless person.” It was a good idea, we all agreed. We’d give the food to someone who needed it.
I’ve never volunteered at a soup kitchen, or participated in a walk-a-thon, though I’ve sometimes supported those who have. I have occasionally donated my artwork for causes, but I rarely give directly to charities. This felt like the right thing to do. It would be direct and immediate.
The four of us took a slight detour into Union Square Park to look for a good candidate for our leftovers. It was a warm Friday night and the park was packed with nary an empty bench to be found.
We circled and surveyed the scene looking through the crowd to pick a winner for our “prize.” A couple lay sleeping on a bench, wrapped in a loving embrace. They were dressed “grungy,” but were they homeless or was their attire an aesthetic choice?
A man in a white shirt and chinos slept on a bench, cradling his head in his hands. Had he fallen on hard times, or was he just a dude taking an after-work catnap?
A crowd of men were milling about on the grass. They looked homeless. Possibly. Should we approach them? It would be tough to approach a large group, especially since we didn’t have food for all of them. No, an individual would be better.
We walked around and around but we couldn’t be sure who was definitely homeless. Surely we couldn’t tap someone on the shoulder and ask.
“Excuse me, sir, are you homeless?”
That could be awkward.
Finally, with only a few minutes before we had to get to the theater, we decided the sleeping man in the white shirt and chinos would be our finalist. I put the bag on the bench next to him, for him to discover upon waking.
We hoped we chose wisely. If he wasn’t one of the city’s many unfortunate, then perhaps he would continue our task and troll the park searching for someone who would benefit from the contents of the bag. That’s what we told ourselves.
Later that night when I returned to the comfort of my own home, I thought about the awful process of identifying people in need and what it means to give. Then it occurred to me, even if the man was homeless, he might have been a vegetarian.
Sometimes doing a good deed can be complicated.