Letter to L.

Good morning L.,

Half an hour ago I came back from walking my dog and saw you and your family bundling into the car for the drive to school. I continued around the corner to our apartment building, where a young white man was sitting beside our front gate, panhandling. I had seen him on the way out and was debating whether to say anything. As I and the dog opened the gate I said, “I would rather you didn’t sit here, so if you could move down the block a little, that would be great.” He asked me to repeat myself, then gave a grimace. I went inside.

I opened up our apartment and poured some food for the dog. Then I went back downstairs and out the front door, hoping he would still be there. He was, and I said to him, “It doesn’t feel good that I said that to you. I’m sorry.”

He thanked me for apologizing. “Because a lot of people,” he said, as a black man stopped to empty out his wallet and give the young white man all his coins, “they say, ‘Please don’t sit in front of my house,’ and you’re saying that to a homeless person.”

If I hadn’t seen you on the street, I don’t think I would have gone back down and apologized. But it was so clear in my mind that you would never treat a homeless person the way I had treated that young man. Yes, I had several interlocking motivations when I first spoke to him&#8212I had asked someone else to move recently and I thought I should treat everyone in the same way, and I had seen this young fellow before and instinctively didn’t like him&#8212but chief among them was the belief that I’m a member-owner of this residential co-op on a busy city street, and homeowners keep the front of their building “clean.”

When I moved here twelve years ago, I didn’t have that attitude. I believed that the homeless had as much right to the sidewalk in front of my building as I did, or more. What changed? Any number of things, I guess, but my better self was shocked by what I did this morning. I want to thank you for being who you are and helping me not to act—in this one way—like a homeowner.