He lay on the floor, right before the ventilation duct of a store on Seventh Avenue. I was wearing five layers of clothing—it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit—and the man wore only a pajama. He seemed to be asleep. I looked at him for a bit to see if I could see him breathe, and when I verified that he was alive, I continued on my way and headed for the supermarket. After a while, I thought about calling social services so they could come and pick him up. The brutal cold was unforgiving, and he could not last much longer dressed as he was. I did not call. Instead, I thought that if he was still on the sidewalk when I returned, I would call and try to get him to a shelter.
New York is a city of great contrasts, but the image of someone sleeping on the street despite the bitter cold is, unfortunately, universal. Surviving in a twenty-first-century society is turning into a small daily miracle in which a lucky few (the famous 1%) are able to live in peace until their death. An environment of social well-being, an environment in which we invest our money and for which we struggle, is beginning to be a luxury: social exclusion, poverty, a poorly treated physical or mental illness, exile, dispossession, the search for a peaceful place to live or just plain bad luck can lead us to sleep on the street sooner than we think. But even if one believes that nobody is really exempt from homelessness, the truth is that there is 1% of very fortunate people who, regardless of bits of bad luck, continue to succeed. The possibility that the head of a bank will end up sleeping inside an ATM is somewhat far-fetched.
When I returned from the supermarket, I walked by the same store. In place of the man, there was now a woman smoking a cigarette holding a sign that said, “I am hungry and cold. Happy New Year.”