"You have to be tough, like this city," counseled my 'assistant,' a homeless veteran named Gregg Sloan, as he continued sorting through mounds of donated coats. "You can't let anything, or anyone, get to you." It was early December 1995 and pretty cold even though we were both deep inside the 14th Street Armory, the staging area for New York Care's annual used-coat drive.
If you live in New York City, you've seen the posters and TV ads for this campaign, which feature a shivering Statue of Liberty. At twenty-five years it's one of the longest running ad campaigns in history and one of the most successful coat drives in the country. (The drive runs until February 7, 2014.) Beginning in 1993 I worked for the organization helping to plan New York Care's Day, their largest volunteer and fundraising event. In the winter of 1995 I was put in charge of the coat drive.
My job was to coordinate the receipt and sorting of the "gently-used" coats collected from spots throughout the city. The armory was one of Gregg's daily haunts, and he became my right-hand man through equal parts charm and persistence. Day after day he would show up offering to sort coats in exchange for lunch and the relative warmth of the armory.
I had taken a job in the non-profit sector after being dumped from a cushy corporate job in IT when my employer, Orion Pictures, went bankrupt. That winter, my boyfriend of five years had also dumped me. I was devastated and didn't hesitate to bitch about it on a daily basis to Gregg.
The military still used the building for some administrative offices but the artillery and vehicles once stored there had long since been moved. Enormous, floor-to-ceiling fences created convenient, individual "cages," where we could separate the men's, women's and children's coats and lock them up securely at night.
I was knee deep in the men's cage, and self-pity, when Gregg delivered his pep talk over a mound of coats. I cataloged the many injustices of my life, using the phrase 'unfair' repeatedly, and without irony. Like, how my non-profit salary forced me to move out of Manhattan -- to an apartment share! In Brooklyn! And how Valentine's Day was coming and now, thanks to Mr. Bad Timing, I'd be without a date for the first time in -- forever!
As Gregg nodded and listened patiently he pulled a turkey sandwich from his jacket, motioning for me to take half. I hesitated. "Go on," he said, "It's fresh. I got it today at the deli on sixth."
A couple of thoughts were going through my head at that moment. I wasn't worried about how recently the sandwich had been purchased, or if Gregg's pocket was the cleanest place to be storing food. It was the realization that this man -- who lived day to day, in the cold, hard landscape of Manhattan, without knowing where he would sleep next, or where his next meal would come from -- was, in that moment, offering me half of all he had. And more, he was offering me his hard-won knowledge on how to survive loss and misfortune -- without the slightest hint of judgment or contempt, which in hindsight I know I richly deserved.
It was a turning point in my life and, despite being on my own from the age of 19, the beginning of my true adult-hood. That day I began seeing myself as part of humanity -- no better and no worse than any one else -- instead of a person impervious to misfortune because I was smarter? better educated? from a better family? than other people. The realization hit me that Gregg and I were only separated by the lottery of circumstance: at that moment I possessed my mental health, and a paycheck. Gregg had lost both. Tomorrow's winner was anybody's guess.
Thereafter I began to sort the various employees at New York Cares, and people elsewhere, into two categories. Those who gave of themselves because they were "lucky" and "wanted to give back", a group that naturally included lots of trust-fund babies, and those who shared my new viewpoint; who dedicated their work or their free time to helping others because they knew, "There but for the Grace of God, go I." In the end I decided that the underlying reasons people gave coats, or of themselves, did not matter as long as they gave, and my righteous sorting was merely a new form of feeling superior.
I was not completely transformed that day. My growth as a human being continues. I tried to stay in touch with Gregg and did for a while, making contact with his sister in Pennsylvania, but eventually the current of my own life prevailed. The last time I saw him was in 2002; he was hailing cabs for happy customers outside Balthazar's on Spring Street.
He didn't remember me.
But I'm happy to say that after my brief hesitation, on that day in 1995, I sat atop the burgeoning mountain of coats and broke bread with my friend. We discussed the merits of brown versus yellow mustard and our shared hatred of onions on any sandwich.
This post first appeared on TheMotherHoodBlog.