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Columns

Nicer Not Necessary

Looking Up

By Katie Disalvo

A conversation I overheard in Porter Square two weeks ago has made me remember how I felt seeing homeless people in the square as a first-year. It had been the first time I was really exposed to homelessness, and I immediately wanted to help. At the same time, the amount of money I was spending at Harvard left me unable to give to every homeless person I saw. By the end of last year I had reached an agreement with myself that I became convinced would add up to something over time. I would give away all my coins.

Two Sundays ago, I was in the Porter Square Dunkin Donuts because I had finished running errands in the area and was waiting for Pier One to open. I wanted to buy new cushions for the chairs in my room. Because I chose to sleep late, I hadn’t eaten at Cabot and was enjoying an egg and cheese and coffee while I made flashcards for Spanish Bab at a semi-frantic pace.

Did you hear about all the tires that were slashed last night?

So I was eavesdropping, too. The following story is my best representation of the conversation that ensued.

To my left, there were two women, one dyed blonde with large gold hoops and tight sand-blasted jeans, the other in an olive shirt and dark pants, overweight with shaggy cropped hair. The blonde gossiped, nodding and swaying as she talked. I heard about the slashed tires, what woman was back in jail and why her rehab had worked. The other, larger woman didn’t talk half as much. It’s been a long month, she said at one point. I paid one of my bills twice…it’s been a long month. The blonde woman agreed.

Did you hear about [Bill]? the blonde asked, bending into the table and whispering. He just waited in a dark alley and stopped the first person who came—and guess how much money he was carrying?...$600.

$600? the other woman responded. There was awe in her voice.

They sat there for a long time. I didn’t eat yesterday, the larger woman explained It makes it hard to finish this. No money for food.

The blonde woman nodded, and didn’t say anything.

I kept writing flashcards. No money for food? I had to give her what was in my wallet. But how? I started composing possible conversations in my head. “Please take this.” “I’m sorry, but I overheard what you were talking about and I really want you to have this.” I decided I couldn’t talk to her with her friend there.

While I waited for an opportunity, a large man and woman came in. How are you doing, the man asked while his (presumed) wife went to the register. The blonde said something enthusiastic. The larger woman was direct. Not so good, she said, I felt sick yesterday, stayed home and didn’t eat anything, didn’t have any money for food.

Why didn’t you tell us? he asked immediately. You’ve helped me out so much this month, she responded. I guess it was a pride thing.

The man sat down in the chair across from me and made small talk about the pair of reading glasses he had just bought from a pharmacy. I switched tables to leave room for his wife. I kept staring at the larger woman; often I found her looking right back at me.

She left the store and I hesitated, scribbling out a few flashcards, eventually looking outside to see her gone. I was relieved but regretted the hesitation. She returned shortly, wobbling in with a third man, who greeted their group. I had a second chance.

When the larger woman left a second time, I jumped up from my chair, clutching my wallet, ready to give her the full $11 it contained. (Would she take it? Could she punch me?) I walked quickly to the door, almost shaking, only to see her talking to another person in the parking lot. I told myself that she had a support system.

I would then sit back down and make flashcards, later rise and go to Pier One. I would feel awkward about purchasing these “nicer not necessary” pillows until the cashier informed me that my gift certificate was not $25 but $50. Triumphant, I would eventually arrive back to my room in Cabot with groceries for baking cookies (>$10), wall adhesive ($6), a flat-back garbage pail ($2), a full stomach ($4), two seat cushions and a throw pillow ($34), and a “nicer not necessary” bike helmet ($30). Later that day, I would nod at, not buy from, the loud Spare Change man outside ABP, and walk right past the “Wheel Chair Basketball” man outside CVS, not even looking at him. I was repulsed by my memories of thinking I’d helped to the degree I was able, getting a special thank you for the multiple coins I dropped into a shaking paper cup. I used to laud myself for smiling at them. I used to think I’d found “a way to deal with it.”

Katie DiSalvo ’05 is a religion concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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