She asked me this twice in the last six weeks, the first time regarding a shapeless mass sitting upright, rigid beneath a blanket on a bench on the island in the middle of Broadway at 67th St.; then again about an enormous bloated gentleman lying prone, arms akimbo, in the middle of the pavement on Greenwich Ave.
What does a mother answer to this? No help in Dr. Spock or Penelope Leach or any of the texts. Because in Western civilization, things are not supposed to be like this, are they? I often find myself wondering how middle-class mothers answer such questions in Calcutta or Rangoon.
Invariably my daughter and I are in a hurry when this happens, and I find myself torn between a jaded New Yorker's annoyance with the ugliness of it all, and confusion as my little child insists on my attention to another human being's suffering.
Avoidance of the homeless is not entirely callousness on my part. Once, in the early 80s, while I was crossing a street next to a homeless guy, he flailed out of control and thumped me as hard as he could on my back. I have told my daughter this story so she will take into account their unpredictability, but she?perhaps because she spent the first seven months of her life in a Chinese orphanage, or simply because she has a genuinely kind heart?refuses to feel anything but empathy for the city's forgotten ones. And they have always loved her for it.
As a very active toddler, she would rush over to them (before I could grab her), greet them, ask them questions about themselves. Once, while riding a mechanical frog in Chinatown, she waved ecstatically to a ragged individual begging nearby, and the guy limped over and pressed a quarter into my hand so she could have another ride.
And I shall never forget the time in the subway when she boomed a cheery "good morning" to a wild-eyed man with terribly matted hair. He darted right over to her, took an open box of cookies out of his filthy bag and gave it to her. Torn as usual between a mother's horror at the lice-ridden nutcase handing my baby AIDS-soaked cookies, and moved beyond words by the man's gesture, forced again by my child to see him as a person, I said something like, "That's so kind of you, but I don't let her have sweets in the morning." And, thank God, he nodded and took the cookies back.
It was at about three and a half that my daughter first realized the sadness involved in homelessness. One day we came across a large man in a dirt-streaked parka, his face covered with angry blotches, lying inside a huge cardboard box. My daughter asked what he was doing. I explained that he lived in the box?whereupon her eyes lit up, being, as she was, precisely at the age when box-living seems like nirvana.
"No," I recall saying. "No, honey, he's living there because he doesn't have a home, and while it's okay some of the time, it's no fun when it rains."
I remember her looking down at him, and it was almost as if a lightbulb went on over her pigtailed head. And from that moment on, she has never ceased in her crusade to, in whatever small way she can, make the lives of the city's homeless more pleasant.
"Someone is hungry," she will say to me pointedly when one of those begging people gets on the subway. It's usually just as I've lowered my eyes so as to avoid visual contact. She holds out her little hand to me and I see myself grudgingly fill it with change. I hate myself more when I start explaining how, if we give to everyone, we ourselves will be poor. Fortunately, she pays scant attention.
It has taken five years, but my daughter has changed me. I realized this not too long ago when we took our puppy for a stroll and he marked on a homeless guy's bag.
This particular guy is often stationed across from the ATM at the end of our street. I don't like him. He's tall, with glittery, crackish eyes and a demonic expression. He radiates a kind of mean wildness. He was seated near his bag on the ground when it happened.
"Hey," he screamed, "your dog peed on my bag. I just bought that bag yesterday for $19.95."
Furious with the dog and with myself for not watching it, I looked at the bag. No way it was yesterday or $19.95. I thought to argue with him, but brainwashed as I have been by my daughter, what came out of my mouth was this: "I'm terribly sorry. What would you like me to do? I'll do anything you want."
He went dead quiet. Perhaps no one had ever said such words to him. I could not believe that I had. Terrified at what he might ask for, I waited nervously. "Well," he said after eyeing me for a moment, "I won't charge you the full price?half-half."
"Ten dollars?" I asked. He nodded. I gave it to him gladly.
On two occasions in the last month we've been in subway cars with women in terrible shape. Both were in their 40s, scrawny, scratching from heroin or lice or both. Both peed in their pants in front of us, astonishing my daughter and forcing me to explain to a six-year-old the ins and outs of alcohol abuse, which?believe me?is not an easy thing to do.
But it's a lot easier than replying to the question, "Is he dead, Mom?" The first time she asked that, I was so confounded that I sloughed it off. "I don't think so, honey," I muttered and hurried her away.
The second time she was onto me. "Is he dead, Mom?" she asked, and then added quickly, "Let's call a policeman to help him."
And we did.
Emily Prager is a columnist for Oxygen.com. She is at work on Wuhu Diary, a memoir for Random House about taking her Chinese daughter to visit her hometown in China.