Haskell and the Homeless Kid
(From Haskell’s Journal dated April 17, 1964--this blog honors Cyndi Lauper's work with the LGBTQ community and homelessness.)
When my mom has a good day— that means she sold a ton of real estate— she’ll invite me to go with her into the Village, eat lobster bisque and cognac shrimp with beurre blanc sauce at The Snail. Well, it sounds better in French. L’Escargot on East 12th street.
Tonight, she was wearing a Chanel evening dress with metallic brocade, white gloves, and the sable fur coat she won at the International Real Estate Conference in Poughkeepsie.
I had on a bow tie and suit.
“It’s too bad you’re my fourteen-year-old child and not my forty-year-old dinner companion. I'd love to share a bottle of champagne.”
“Well, what’s stopping you? I’ll have a sip.”
She hit me lightly with the rim of her umbrella, as we crossed 9th Avenue and made our way past several kids sleeping on the sidewalk, not even in tents but on the cement in sleeping bags. One young boy, about my age, sat on a flattened cardboard box smack in front of our French restaurant. His handwritten sign said: Anything would help.
“Mom, what happened to him?”
“I’ll tell you when we get inside.”
We took a flight of stairs down into the restaurant as Mom greeted the maître d’ with a hug.
“Usual table, Mrs. Hodge?”
“Why not?” Mom liked to sit in the center – where she could see everyone, and where everyone could see her. After all, at one time she starred in a series of B movies that were now being shown on The Late Late show.
“Mom, I feel uncomfortable, like that scene in Oliver Twist. You know, at the beginning, when all the rich guys are eating mutton, and the orphans are slurping drool….”
“He’s homeless. Why don’t you go out there and give him this.”
She casually handed me a twenty-dollar bill.
“I’m not going to do that. That’s a lot of money.”
“I’d invite him to join us, but I don’t want to make a scene. Give him the money, and ask him what he’d like to eat. He can order off the menu.” She tossed me hers.
“I don’t see why not.”
“Mom, that’s crazy. If he had a cup, I’d put a dollar in it. That’s what Debra’s mom does when we go down to the ice rink. She has ten times more money than you have.”
“Well, I have a bigger heart. Doses of kindness heal the world, right? Tell him if he needs help, give him my business card. Here.” She retrieved one from her purse and handed it to me limply. “There are some empty apartments on 45th street. A couple of realtors and I are getting together and making them available to homeless kids. It’s illegal. I get nothing but grief from the cops, but we’re doing it anyway. It’s the least we can do.”
I let out a big sigh and rose from my seat.
“Oh, here. One more thing.” She wrapped up the French bread, the butter and a big wad of cheese into a cloth napkin. “He can have this too.”
I stood there motionless. “Mom? The way I’m dressed and….” I could hardly speak the words. “I feel like some spoiled little monster.”
She let out a laugh that made the startled exotic fish in the aquarium scatter in all directions. “Imagine how he feels. He’s sitting there in the cold — what is it, 40 degrees tonight? — bundled up in a tattered blanket. You’ll go home later and make sure all your comic books are put back in their plastic sleeves. You’ll fold your pajamas in thirds and neatly put them away in the second drawer. What’s tonight? 'Dr. Kildare' or 'The Beverly Hillbillies?' I forget. You’ll watch it in bed on your own black and white TV while he’s shivering and lonely – and scared he may not survive the night. The very least we can offer is a pinch of kindness. That child, I’m just guessing, was probably kicked out of his house, and he has no place to go. This will help.”
“Why would anyone do something horrible like that?”
“Well, I can’t say for sure, but my hairdresser— you know, Rey, — had the same thing happened to him when he was in high school. Parents kicked him out.”
“For what? Drugs?”
“Heavens, no.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Rey’s father caught him in bed with a boy from school. He was literally thrown out the front door and into the street. He remained homeless for months until some family helped him out.”
I thought for a quick second. If I met a boy at school who I liked and brought him home to my bedroom, and Mom walked in on us, what would she do? Offer big doses of kindness?
My mom waved her right arm in the air, as if she were dismissing me. “Now, not another word. Go!”
I lumbered up the stairs, out the door to the street, and looked to the right. I walked over to where he was sitting and handed the boy the money, the cloth napkin with the bread, and the menu. I looked at him as he looked back at me. I took another breath in as I thought of what to say to him. Then I said as I looked at him, eye to eye, “My mom wants you to order something.”
He was seated with his legs crossed, reading one of my favorite double issue Superman comic books.
“You can order anything you want,” I told him.
Then why don’t I start with the Coquilles Saint-Jacques, maybe some Boudin Noir Aux Pommes and for the main course the Blanquette de Veau?
I’m of course making this up. The boy’s eyes lit up. He moved his lips, but he said nothing.
“Look, I know you must be hungry. How about some French onion soup, a cheeseburger – and of course French fries? How does that sound?”
I noticed now that I had looked at him more closely that he had curly hair, blue eyes, and a skinny long frame – like mine. He even wore the same exact black and white pair of Keds I bought at a swap meet. I felt like I was staring at myself.
I bit the inside of my lip to keep myself from crying. Just as I was about to go back inside the restaurant, I remembered to hand him my mom’s card. “Call her, all right?”
I couldn’t stay any longer. I felt riddled with guilt. My eyes welled up with tears. I had to go back to the restaurant and yet I was afraid my face would appear red, my eyes puffy, my lips quivering from fear.
What is wrong with this world?
I turned around and saw the entrance to the restaurant to my right. I ran down the stairs, asked Rudy to deliver the food to the boy outside, and finally, quite out of breath, sat back down at the table in the center of the room. I didn’t even look at my mom. I just covered my face with my hands. Both my legs shook.
“You did a good deed.” Mom reached over and held both my hands. She had no idea why I was upset.
He was like my doppleganger. I don’t know what came over me. Given certain circumstances, I could be him. He could be me, and I found that very, very troubling.