By now you’ve probably heard about Lawrence DePrimo, better known as the “the shoe cop,” or the cop who bought the homeless man in Times Square a $100 pair of boots. The photo, which has gone viral and which has been featured by every major news outlet, depicts DePrimo kneeling down to offer the man a pair of shoes that he bought moments before from the shoe store next door after seeing the man sitting barefoot with blisters on his feet on a cold night in New York City. People have been driven to tears by this photo. And it is, no question, heartwarming that the policeman, rather than making a mental note to ask his Facebook friends if anyone had an old pair of size 13 shoes they could spare, didn’t let that man pass one more night without shoes. He went out that very minute, spent $100 of his own money, and gave the man some warm socks and boots. He even put them on the man himself.
But here’s my question: Why is this national news? Why is it so rare in this country that people stop and ask a homeless person what they need that when one man does, the whole country breaks down in tears?
A new homeless man arrived in our neighborhood a few months ago. I took an interest in him because he never asks anyone for money. He has a donation box by his side, but he just sits there, not bothering anyone, all day every day, making art. His art is made from discarded clothes hangers and plastic bottles, and it’s not very good, but I like it the way I like my kids’ preschool art—because they put so much time into it and because it means a lot to them. I have a couple of pieces Doc (that’s what he calls himself) made in our house, and my kids love them. They were even inspired to make their own pipe cleaner sculptures after I brought them home, a couple of which they gave to Doc.
I don’t know much about Doc. He won’t tell me where he came from, where he was born, where he grew up, or what he did in his former, non-homeless life. I think he was born in Australia—he mentioned it but then denied it—and he did tell me that he’s been homeless for 25 years and hasn’t had a girlfriend for 36. He doesn’t trust anyone, and he doesn’t want any kind of rain-proof tarp or cover to sleep on or in because he’s “a soldier” and would rather sit up all night in the rain feeling miserable than try to sleep in the rain. (He used the word “miserable” to describe his sitting up all night in the rain last night.) He says all that matters to him is his work (making sculptures) and that he plans to continue living this way, doing his work, until he dies. I asked if he was happy and he said, “No, I’ve never been happy. But happiness doesn’t matter to me. I don’t think about it.” In some ways, I think we have a lot to learn from Doc. Happiness, I believe, is overrated, but I’ll save that for another blog post.
I’ve bought Doc new pants, shoes, socks, T-shirts, underwear, and a warm fleece jacket. I’ve offered him blankets and rain gear, but he turned those down. He wears the fleece I bought him under his dirty old fleece, but he doesn’t wear the pants at all, and he returned the shoes to me, saying he was picky about shoes and preferred to have another pair like the ones he has—which are very old and worn, but worth about $100 new. I’m thinking about getting them for Christmas. My only worry is that they’ll go the way the pants went—which is, I think, buried in a box beneath a plastic tarp. Sometimes I wonder if Doc prefers to look dirty to get more donations. I can’t say I blame him.
Sometimes Doc asks me to buy him food because he says the restaurants don’t want to serve him. But he never asks me to pay. He always offers me money (which I don’t take), and he always has junk food on hand. I offered him a banana once and he turned it down, but he offered me some Nutter Butters in return, and asked me to buy him a Coke. I had to explain to him that my kids aren’t allowed to eat cookies except on special occasions. (This is Berkeley, after all.)
He helps me out, too. He gave me a card for a free Peet’s coffee one day because he said they were mean to him and he won’t go in there anymore. I told him I don’t drink coffee. “But you drink tea, don’t you?” he said. I couldn’t remember telling him that, but he was right, I do. Another day when I told him I was sick, he gave me two cloves of garlic and told me to swallow them whole, and I did.
When Berkeley’s Measure S, the sit and lie measure, was on the ballot November 6, I voted against it. Measure S would have made it illegal for Doc to sit on the wall next to Mechanics Bank and make art all day. After a couple of warnings, he would have been sent to jail. And he’s tired of jail, he told me. That’s why he stopped sleeping on the protected steps of a merchant across the street, where he could stay dry—because they told him to leave and he doesn’t want to risk being sent back to jail. I voted against Measure S partly for selfish reasons—I don’t want to lose Doc—and partly because I don’t think being homeless is a crime. Living on the streets is hard enough on them already without punishing them for it.
Last year, a friend and I collected donations to make gift bags for the women and children in our local women’s shelter. It’s the only overnight women’s shelter in Berkeley, and there were about 23 women and 7 kids living there at the time. I had read an article online about things that are helpful to give to homeless people and then called the shelter to confirm that those items would be useful. In each bag we put: shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, lotion, a washcloth, a pen, a journal, fuzzy socks, underwear, a bag of English toffee, homemade scented soap, and a handwritten holiday card. The kids’ bags included a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, a candy cane, and toys. Most of the items were donated by friends. Some were purchased with money donated by friends. Some I purchased myself. What surprised me is how few friends responded to my request for donations. In order to make the bags happen, my friend had to send a request out to her own friends, and together we pulled enough donations together to fill the bags. I’m hoping Lawrence DePrimo’s heartwarming photo will inspire more people to participate this year.
It’s easy to think, “Someone else will do something about it. Some homeless agency or policeman or social worker will help them out.” It’s easy to tell ourselves, “They’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol.” It’s easy to get annoyed when you offer them a burrito and they say no, they want pizza. It’s easy to get discouraged when you buy them pants, and they don’t wear them. But then why are we so touched by the photo of a police officer offering a homeless man a pair of boots? Because that man is saying, “Hey, I don’t care why you’re here or how you got here. I don’t care whether you’re mentally ill or an alcoholic. No one deserves to sit outside in the cold without shoes or socks. I’m doing for you what I would hope someone would do for me.” We all need help now and then, and most of us are lucky enough to have help. We have friends or family members who can lend us money when we need it, who can watch our kids when we’re sick, who can give us a place to stay if we need to get away. But some people don’t have anyone at all, for whatever reason, and an act of kindness can mean the world to them. Plus, it’s good for our hearts.
I started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers last night because it was mentioned in a New York Times article about parenting the other day. For those of you who haven’t read it, it begins with a tale about a town in Pennsylvania named Roseto that was populated almost exclusively by immigrants from a small town in Italy by the same name. The unusual thing about Roseto in the 50s was that there were almost no incidents of heart disease or a variety of other common illnesses in the town. After much research, scientists came to the conclusion that what set Roseto apart from other towns was its sense of community. In a town of just a few hundred people, residents stopped on the street to talk to each other in their native Italian language, grandparents lived with their children and grandchildren, and families were heavily involved in civic organizations. The result? People ate fatty foods, exercised little, and lived until they died of old age. It’s time we turned our communities into Rosetos. It’s time we performed more acts of kindness. It’s time we worried a little bit less about our own comfort and happiness and success and a little more about the people who don’t have the luxury to worry about those things because they’re too busy wondering where they’re going to find their next meal.
If you would like to donate to help us fill our shelter bags this year, we’d be hugely grateful. If you don’t live in Berkeley and you’d rather do something for your own community, fantastic. I want to hear all about the results.
And now I’m curious. What is your reaction to the DePrimo photo? Have you experienced any successes or failures with a homeless person before? How did that affect your attitude toward them?