West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 23 | November. 07 -,13 2007

Notebook

A matter of shoes and the weight of books and poetry

By César Chelala

I was irritated with my wife. After waiting for several weeks to carve out some free time to go find a new set of night tables (her own night table had collapsed under the weight of books), we were finally on our way when my wife stopped to talk to a stranger near our house. Though the incident happened some months ago, I only understood its import this morning upon reading a poem by Jack Agüeros, a New York poet, which brought that event back to my mind. But I am jumping ahead, so let me backtrack.

I was walking with my wife, Silvia, to the bus stop when a young man passed in front of us. He was of probable East Indian descent, shabbily dressed and talking to himself, the last being not so unusual in and of itself for New York City. But what told me he wasn’t of sound mind was that on that frigid morning he was shoeless, his feet dirty and calloused.

Seeing his plight, my wife asked him, “Sir, do you need shoes?” The man looked surprised, and mumbled a response which my wife took as a positive answer. Upon hearing that, Silvia said to me, “Just wait a few minutes,” and turned back toward our house.

“What is going on?” I asked myself. “We are very short of time and my wife is going back to pick up some shoes for a man who probably wouldn’t realize if he had shoes on or not.” I was annoyed at her but didn’t have any choice but to wait for her. The man went to sit on a bench nearby. I decided to keep an eye on him, to make sure that he would wait for her and not try to walk away. I tried to engage him in conversation but was unable to. He obviously preferred to continue inhabiting his own world. How my wife was able to reach him escapes me.

Silvia’s trip was taking more time than I had anticipated and, at a moment when I wasn’t paying attention, the man disappeared.

“Well,” I said to myself, “that will show her that she can’t be a Samaritan all the time. …” I walked up the avenue and down and up a side street, but couldn’t see him.   

Finally, frustrated, I retraced my steps and went back home to tell my wife what had happened. Just as I turned a corner, however, I saw her talking to the shoeless man. (He had gone back in the same direction as my wife.) She was handing him a pair of practically new shoes, part of a bunch that we had decided to donate to a homeless shelter.

“Most probably,” I thought, “he will now go and try to sell them.” I was wrong again. My wife’s generous thoughts prevailed over what I believed was my common sense. While sitting waiting for the bus we saw the young man walk by again, proudly wearing his new set of shoes, a smile on his face. It was the man’s pleasure as well as my wife’s unassuming kindness that I recalled upon reading a Jack Agüeros poem months later. In his “Psalm for Distribution,” Agüeros, a Nuyorican poet of the dispossessed, writes:
 
Lord
on 8th Street
Between 6th Avenue and
Broadway
In Greenwich Village
There are enough shoe stores
With enough shoes
To make me wonder
Where there are shoeless people
On the earth.
 
Lord,
You have to fire the Angel
in charge of distribution.
 
The poem is set a few blocks away from where this incident took place.

Chelala is a writer on human rights issues.


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