Night has fallen over the island that knows little rest. On my walk I see someone wrapped up in winter garb, sitting against a barricade on the sidewalk on Houston Street, head bent down. At first I’m unsure whether it’s a man or a woman. Responding to the plea for help written on the cardboard sign—just one of many you’d see on a typical day in Manhattan—I put five bucks in the empty styrofoam cup. The person slowly raises the head and thanks me. Seeing a woman in this situation always does a real number on me.
It was a bit hard to understand her speech because Manhattan is noisy and the noise overwhelms my aging ears. She said something about her father’s death, about being raped, about being harassed last night in the subway where she slept. She was scared, she said. She was hungry. A young man briefly interrupted his progress and handed her some food in a wrapper as he gave her his smile and good wishes. She offered me some of it as she ate.
She had no place to sleep and knew of a modest hotel on Bowery, so I gave her enough to sleep there for the night. She began to cry. She asked me, “Are you sure?” I am never so sure as I am when I see people in these straits, like the woman in tears on the steps to the train. She pleaded for someone to buy her Metro card. She assured me it was good and implored me to verify it then and there. She was right, as were my instincts. Her tears were genuine.
Living here you see so much in every minute, so many varieties of the human condition just on the surface of life without going into any depth with anyone. And lately there are films. Oh, boy, are there films right now. I just saw two perfectly outstanding, wonderfully revealing, very human films, both significant on many levels.
“Manchester by the Sea” with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams tells a ripping story of tragedy, love and loss. It’s a masterpiece worth every moment of its 2 hours and 25 minutes. At first thought I assumed it took place in England. No matter. It’s thoroughly American, very New England, and deeply emotional. Expect the unexpected. It’s a very brave effort, and it will try to take your breath in its pivotal moments. That’s what it did to me and my friend Jean. Feel it all. That’s why you made the effort and bought that ticket, right? We go to be moved. We go to feel more life.
The other film found me as I walked after lunch. I saw the title in large letters on the marquee in Union Square: “LOVING”. I knew at once I had to see it. Its leading actors play the couple who were the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule the miscegenation laws of many US states in effect at the time. It takes almost no liberties with the real story. The players, almost to a man, resemble the actual people they portray. You will be moved. I promise.
Sometimes we never know quite how lucky we are, and of course we are rarely grateful enough to suit our ideals, or humble enough, too. Being in this city will bring you to your knees and back up again, over and over and over, if you want that, and it will enlarge you in ways you cannot imagine. You have only to walk out of your shelter and engage. At this point in my life, no place could suit me better. The place is huge in every possible way, and—I believe this because I see it every day—it has a heart to match its size.
It’s probable that every language is spoken here and every conceivable kind of life is lived here. The city is a continent unto itself, still a land of great promise and hope in this very uncertain time. There is great strength in its numbers. Someone will always be there to lend a hand. And someone will always be grateful to receive it. That exchange is life.