Just being nice – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 23, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Well, I passed another night in the soup kitchen while successfully avoiding dilettantism. Phew!  It was a battle, but I managed to unplug the tentacles of apathy.


Last night’s work in the soup kitchen was actually really fun. I was the green salad server, and I worked alongside Trev, who served macaroni salad and turkey salad. He was so funny, he is a homeless man from the south and he talked in a way I could barely decipher – the most rolling and deep accent ever. He kept making jokes and shouting, and I just kept laughing.

The heat was so intense yesterday (well over 100 degrees in the shade) that the chef decided to serve a cooling meal of cold salads, and many diners thanked him, and us, for the thought. The kitchen is a ‘line up’ kitchen (rather than a sit down and be served-style one), so once the doors opened there was a stream of, literally, over a hundred hungry people coming towards us, waiting to receive their meal. There were old people, young people, black people, latino people, asian-americans, and the occasional white person. Well dressed people you would never suspect of being unable to pay for a meal. People in ragged, or no, clothing. We had to “go-go-go!” to get everyone served in time. The final count was 188 diners from the street, and that didn’t include all the staff and residents at the mission.


Many of the people coming in for a free meal were at the end of a long day of working for low wages. Many of them seemed to be living on the streets, including two women who came in and nearly broke my heart. One had a loose top on that was almost literally ‘rags,’ it barely covered her chest, and you could see her collar bones almost poking through her skin. She stood near the serving counter without saying anything, and she looked to be around 40 or 50 years old. We asked her if she was a ‘first timer’ at the meal (meaning she’d get a larger portion) and she barely responded. Trev and I joined forces to give her a large helping, and hoped that she’d return for more, but she didn’t. The other woman was old enough to be my grandmother, she was in her seventies or so and sat very patiently outside the kitchen for at least an hour, waiting for the doors to open. She looked down at the ground whenever I looked at her, with an expression of what seemed to be shame, or uncertainty, on her face.


One change I’ve noticed since I began this project is that on a personal level I’m much more comfortable around the bounty of people who live, sleep or spend their days on the streets here. I don’t have to try to talk myself into approaching them, I do it much more easily. And I help out willingly if I can, when they ask for a drink or food. In a city with such a huge population of homeless people, this makes my own time here easier. I think it also means I’m a more useful inhabitant.


But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the weird desire of some humans to try stop others from helping out with, or learning about, the lives of those who are disadvantaged, or suffering, or being treated unfairly. I mean, the strange desire of those who (don’t just profess no interest themselves, but) actively try to stop others exploring social issues and talking about them. Where does this desire come from? Is it derived from cynicism? Unrelated, but projected anger? The rampant, tumorous apathy of our times?




I recalled last night in the soup kitchen, as I dished up the salad, an experience I had in a writing class last year. This highlighted how being a New Zealander in this city is a drastic disadvantage. Someone in the class had written about the way Australians are “plagued by a crippling politeness.” I stared at the line in confusion. In New Zealand culture, an Australian is an uncouth, vulgar species of human being (not really, but that’s what we say). New Zealanders are, by a rule of thumb, eons more polite. I am true to my culture and incredibly polite. And New York is the rudest city I’ve ever lived in. To think that an Australian is crippled here, well, I am the politically correct term for incredibly f*&ked. Hence the disadvantage.


That’s why I had so much trouble in a recent interaction with the homeless-service world, and have been so glad to find the friendly openness of the Rescue Mission, as well as – on some level – the corporate embrace of New York Cares. Corpo-talk in the volunteer sector can, at least, be soothing because its literalism takes away some of the excessive verbosity, egotism and political correctness-gone-wrong that can stalk the shores of altruism.


The alternative to buying a wholesome product-experience with my time at New York Cares was outlined on the phone to me two days ago by a bizarrely aggressive person. She’d offered to help me connect with the homeless world, so I trustingly gave her my number. What resulted was a thirty minute tirade about how I need to open up my mind if I want to actually understand anyone other than myself. She’d read my posts here and decided that how I was talking about homeless people, how I was writing about them, and how I was approaching all of my interactions with them was limited to a certain, ignorant point of view (that of the ‘oh they’re so sad’ persuasion of ignorance) and that the wealth and variety and intensity of experience of a person who also happens to be without a home is completely lost on me. If I want to be a good writer, I have to also be an open minded, good person. I have a lot to learn, and she was not sure she could expose me to the homeless people she works with. As the tirade continued, I kept looking for the Self-Select button on my phone. Self-Select! Self-Select! Self-Select out of this product! I really should have hung up, and not tried to reason. Unfortunately my crippling politeness kept me on the line ’til the bitter-end.


This phone-rant was upsetting to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am all ears if someone would like to try to help me broaden my mind, or gain a new perspective. That is a beautiful, life-affirming and necessary thing to do – please do it. But please do it generously, without abusing me. Otherwise, your intended opening-up has the opposite effect. Secondly, I would love to learn more about how the term homeless could be repositioned, and would love to learn more about alternative, humanizing approaches to interacting with people-without-homes. But I am also a human being, not above insults and the hurt of categorization. Thirdly, I don’t care about my writing. I like writing, but that’s not why I’m writing about homelessness. Writing is a vehicle to take me someplace else, into a social issue that I am moved and compelled by, and that I hope others are too. If I simply wanted to be considered a good writer, I might write about, for example, my love life and my belly button and food and sex. Which are great things to write about, but not part of what compels me as a person (well, not all of the time anyway!). Instead, I’d like to do something more with my writing; to learn about something I know nothing about, to share those ‘learnings’ (ha ha) with those who are interested.


The last couple of days have been days of contrasts. All of the world is plagued by a crippling something, but the world of the homeless here is especially crippled, it seems, by the people who do and don’t serve it. The contrast of “self-select your meat product-volunteer work over the internet” with “join with, gently engage, and resist to categorize, ‘people who may or may not have been without a home at one point in time and may still be without a home but they are certainly not The Homeless, certainly not one part of a multitude of homeless people’ who may or may not be willing to tolerate your presence while you make art with them,” has been bewildering, hard to comprehend. In all of this, where is the space for those who actually just care about being good people? Is kindness so passé that it doesn’t exist in our culture anymore?


Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you can only buy it now, or pretend to have it when it serves you. But anyway, I’m going to head back to the soup kitchen, because I like it there, and the people are real. They call themselves ‘homeless,’ maybe they need to be educated by someone who has greater aspirations for their minds and souls, and maybe the people who are working with them are just keeping them down with their own ignorance. But maybe they, also, they’re not. Maybe it’s a blessing to just be around people who serve from the heart.


  1. Mis-directed petty phone tyrant. Probably Australian.

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