Midnight Van to Manhattan

Living in New York, it’s easy to get caught up in all the glamour of the greatest city in the universe. The beautiful streets of our city offer us so much- fashion, art, culture, food, people- yet an even more passes by unnoticed with all the extravagant distractions that so easily catch our attention.
We may say hi to the homeless man on our street, toss a quarter in his raggedy Starbucks cup and continue our journey to Whole Foods, by which time he is fully out of our minds and we’re stocking up on organic apples at $13/pound.  We may even make an effort, bring our cherished neighborhood bum a warm blanket in the snow, give her a bottle of water on a particularly hot day, but in the end, they stay there, on the grit-covered sidewalk in the smog of the city, and we push them out of our heads as we continue on with our fabulous lives. 
Every New Yorker has problems:  we missed the 1 train by half a second and our iPhone app tells us the next train won’t arrive for 4 more minutes.  We spent our weekly budget going out on Thursday night and have to live on Hallel cart bagels for six days. We found a cockroach, or worse, a mouse in the kitchen we pay far too much rent for, and the exterminator can’t come for ten more days.  And while so many things may seem like a crisis, there are worse things in life than getting your Manolo stuck in a subway grate. 
This is not to say that all New Yorkers are materialistic, self-absorbed drones.  On the contrary, I find that so many of us are concerned with community issues, with the greater world, with discussing culture and politics and so many issues that would perhaps be left untouched in a city without such magnificent diversity. 
We are thinkers, New Yorkers. And sometimes things happen that make us perceive our world in a different way, adding just another diversion to the daily business of being a city dweller. 
The last Thursday in March I participated in a program called Midnight Run.  The organization coordinates groups of volunteers to prepare meals and collect clothing for the homeless, which will then be distributed by van starting around 10:00 pm. 
I spent the early part of the evening alongside JTS students, assembling sandwiches (tuna, egg salad, cheese) to stuff in paper bags alongside an apple and a cookie.  We sorted through piles of donated clothes, separating men’s from women’s apparel, folding blankets and matching socks. After a hard week, it was nice to relax with my peers, everyone smiley that they were doing something to help the less fortunate, and everyone ready to unwind for the weekend.  It was comforting to be able to methodically label sandwich bags and appreciate my classmate’s terrifyingly accurate impressions of our favorite (read: most entertaining) professors. 
We soon loaded the two enormous vans that we had borrowed from the Midnight Run office for the evening with dinners and blankets and hot chocolate, and set off on the route arranged for us.  While my anxiety about driving surely had me riled up (“Omigod, there’s a bus turning, we’re going to die!” “You can’t drive through Central Park!”  “How do we know who’s drunk?  We don’t.  Get off the road!”) even more excitement was bubbling inside of me as I prepared for what I expected to be a memorable experience. 
Our van full of food!

We pulled up to the first location on the Upper East Side. The vans are unmarked, meaning, the people who need the resources know when and where they will be, so there is no need to promote the organization with any advertisements on the vehicle. We offered a sandwich and a blanket to a man sleeping on the steps of the church and after a few more minutes of waiting, we drove off for our next stop. That’s it? I thought. Do people really need us or are we just doing this program to make ourselves feel good? Slightly disappointed, I sang along to Ke$ha with my car mates as we navigated to the next destination (Madison Avenue is a one-way street, just fyi).

The next few stops were similar. One or two people approached the van, grateful indeed, but I wondered what we would do with over 150 sandwiches at the end of the night.

Passing out clothing from the van.
By the time we reached midtown, however, I was beginning to see how necessary our mission truly was. Men and women approached the van, many of them so visibly cold and hungry I found it difficult to keep a smile on my face. “Have a nice evening, sir,” I would grin as I handed out a dinner much smaller than my own on any given night to someone who had probably not eaten all day. And I was deeply disturbed. How could I wish them well, knowing most of them didn’t have a bed to sleep in, a person nearby to love them, an assurance that they would have anything to eat when they wake up?

I also didn’t know them. I had no idea what their circumstances, what their stories were. Sure, I had a few short details from a college drop out and others I could tell had turned to drugs for one reason or another, but how could I so deeply empathize with people I knew so little about?

Sitting pretzel-style in the trunk of the van passing out sandwiches, my velvet-gloved hands numb and my entire body shaking from the cold, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live on the street. I have my needs: warm food, a different pair of shoes for every day of the week, nail polish, toilet paper. How could anybody do without this?

Tyra once did an episode of her show in which she lived as a homeless person for 24 hours. She wore a bandana over her weave, bathed herself with a bar of soap in a public restroom, and slept on the street while someone watched over her so she wouldn’t be mugged/raped/harassed for autographs. During the interview segment she was brought to tears multiple times, and I remember being to interested that she would willingly do this, so intrigued in the way she was able to portray homelessness. But in the end, she was still a celebrity, had a multimillion-dollar apartment and assistants and career to return to, while her homeless companions had no hope of ever achieving any of this.

By the time we arrived at our last stop, I could see we were absolutely making an impact.  Sure, it was only one more meal, one extra hat or sweater or pair of shoes, but it was something.  And yes, there was definitely more we could be doing. I worry that the people with whom we interacted never have the chance to engage in a life-changing novel, to walk through New York for aesthetic value not just to find a place to nap, to build lifelong friendships.  Though we can’t hope to improve the world with any singular project, every little bit helps. Recognizing that I am privileged, that I have to opportunity to help the world and actively want to do so is the most important thing I can take away from projects like these. 
And while I cannot say my life has changed since this incredible evening, I still walk past homeless people asking for money, I’ve been guilty of throwing away meals I cannot finish, I know that I see the city differently.  On my way to Bloomingdale’s last weekend I walked past the first corner at which we handed out our first sandwich, and I paused to reflect on it. As Tory Burch flats and Prada bags swished by me in one of New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods, I knew that there was so much unseen suffering in this same location. In fear of sounding self-righteous, I told my shopping friend the amazing event that had taken place at this intersection, passing on the awareness and hopefully promoting further discussions that will lead to progress and absolutely make New York the greatest city in the universe. 
Cold but satisfied with our Midnight Run.