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From Behind the Umbrella

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To the virgin 97th street walker, the old, hunched-back woman begging on the street, dodging cars with her small handmade cardboard placard, elicits a sense of pity. “Homeless, please help,” she mutters and shows a toothless grin. She seems Lilliputian on Manhattan’s busy cross street, a small speck on an otherwise busy thoroughfare of the intersection of Dunkin’ Donuts and One Fish Two Fish.

I, however, know the truth about the toothless woman carrying her dilapidated sign and her black umbrella. She is a heroine addict.

Begging for money, she needs to feed her hunger. It’s always a table for one for the toothless woman. No tablecloths or silverware for this dining experience. No white dishes, no glasses of water. Her routine is predictable to me, deceiving to others.

She sets up shop on the three steps leading up to a now-barricaded apartment building on Madison Avenue. Hazelnut coffee smells drift out from the coffee shop on her right, fresh laundry smells spill out from the cleaners on her left. She opens her black umbrella to shield herself from us—us from her. Even beyond her addiction, she maintains a slight sense of humility.

Walking downtown, the angle of the umbrellas always offers me an unwarranted and often disdainful peek as she satiates her addiction. The vein popping from her arm is throbbing loudly as it awaits the needle to quenches its thirst.

I see her almost every day—sometimes on 97th street and sometimes on Madison Avenue. I watch her with her sign. I smell her addiction and the rage inside me boils. I wish I were more sad, but I’m angry. I want to scream to the world that this woman—this old, begging skeleton of who she once was—is a drug-addicted fraud. Her pleas for food are false. She is only in pursuit of one thing—only the one addiction must be fed. Food, shelter, comfort of other people, love—all of it takes a backseat to her heroine addiction.

One day, as I was walking briskly with my son in hand, her eyes met mine and she smiled at me. For the first time, I saw a person behind the addict.

An old lady living on the street—alive but not living, walking but not going anywhere, smiling but not happy. Maybe she’s a mother. Or a grandmother. Maybe she was even a wife? A sister? Someone’s best friend? How long has she lived this unfortunate drug-addicted life? Has she ever tried to stop? Who is her dealer and how does she pay him? What happens when her street-collected coins don’t total up to the cost of her next syringe?

I smiled back at her with my mouth, but my eyes said, I’m sorry.

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