However, as part of the process of setting up my position, I had to get hold of a social security number (for my Australian readers, it’s kind of like a TFN, but not). My first two attempts to get one failed; in the first instance I didn’t have enough time, in the second I was missing a document they required.
So, last Thursday I moved my lectures around so that I could get to the office early and sort it all out. Since the office is difficult to get to by public transport, my housemate Jack gave me a lift there on his way to his teaching job. I arrived at the office two hours before opening, and prepared myself for a long wait in the near freezing temperatures.
That’s how I met Nebby. I wasn’t the first person in line that morning. Standing at the door, in a stain marked coat and sweatpants, was Nebby, a stocky fellow, half asleep in the morning light, moving back and forth on his feet to keep warm. Condensation formed on his beard as he breathed in the freezing air.
Being the only two people at the office at this stage, we started making small talk, the weather being the obvious topic, along with sports and musing about how much money someone could make if they opened a coffee cart to serve people in line. Eventually the topic turned to why we were both here at the office this morning.
Nebby is homeless.
He used to work as a kitchen hand, but when his rent increased, he could no longer afford to pay, and was evicted. Without a home to live in, he lost his job. During the eviction, he lost all his ID, and he was there to try and get his social security card reissued. With his social security card, he could get his other ID reissued, and then start about getting a new job. He didn’t want to work illegally, but legitimate employment couldn’t be had without ID.
Without money for even a bus to the office, Nebby had walked there. He said he lived in a park somewhere in Inwood. I looked that area up afterwards and realised it was over 7 miles away. He said he had started his journey at 11pm the night before, slowly trudging through the freezing darkness, stopping for an hour along the way at a 7-11, and then getting to the office sometime around 5am.
Suddenly any complaint I had about the cold and the wait became flippant.
What floored me though was Nebby’s attitude. He wasn’t angry at his lot. He was weary, yes, but his outlook was resolute. He knew that the process of getting things back together was going to be long, but his attitude was “one step at a time”. Each trip to the office would put him a bit closer to getting things sorted out.
You sensed a relentlessness in his attitude, a belief that by concerted effort, he could fix things, improve his lot and be better. To me this is the core of the American spirit, a desire to continuously improve, a belief that honest labour bears good fruit. How many of us, given the same circumstances, would exhibit that same unshakeable resolve?
At nine o’clock the office opened. I helped Nebby get his ticket from the computer, then we went to our assigned windows to be processed. My application went through, and I was good to go.
Walking back to the nearest train station, I caught up with Nebby, who was slowly walking in the direction of Inwood. I asked him how it all went. He wasn’t able to get his card reissued, but the office gave him enough information to allow him to get a different ID card issued. It would mean a trip to another office, and another trip back to social security to get his social security card reissued, but he didn’t mind. It was a step forward he said.
His only complaint was that the clouds were blocking the weak morning sunlight.
I wrestled with the idea of giving him what cash I had in my wallet (as it turned out, a single dollar bill), but thought better of it. I doubt he would have accepted it. Nebby struck me as the type of person who is too proud to accept flat out charity. I let him know of an event taking place at Fair Park that day called the Feast of Sharing, where he could get a free thanksgiving dinner. He thanked me, but said it was too long a walk to make.
I shook his hand and wished him well. He wished me the same, and then we went our separate ways.
In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article about the struggles of the long term unemployed. He’s not the only one.
In all, it’s a reminder of how precarious our positions are. It doesn’t take much to go from prosperous to poor, to lose everything. There but for the grace of God, luck or the universe go we. And let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t have the resolve to keep going for too long if we were to fall.
Don’t read this as a criticism of the U.S. system. The situation’s not too different in Australia, Europe or anywhere else. If there is a criticism to be levelled, it is at humanity as a whole. Our worth as a civilisation is defined by how we treat those in need, how we help those less fortunate than us. The greatest human evil is indifference, and I fear that we have become indifferent.
I’m not sure if I’ll see Nebby again. I hope things work out for him. What I do know is that he’ll be a reminder, to keep striving in the face of adversity, to appreciate the sunlight and the trees, and to work to better the lot of all of us.