Can. Do.

I walked past a homeless man last night. Chris and I were on our way to shop for dinner.  A brief interlude of being husband and wife at a time of intense professional focus and opportunity.

He was sitting on the still damp sidewalk leaning against the wall that separates Starbucks and the dry cleaners - an example of retail location management that I hope is an indicator of somebody’s ability to turn strategy into real estate reality.   

As we passed he reached out towards us and mumbled something. “Can you help me out?”

There are some people that ask for money that appear to me to be using it as a way to pass the time. They are both diffident and menacing. A difficult combination to express in the few seconds it takes for the exchange to take place. Dressed too well. Disinterested too quickly. They leave you with a feeling of relief as they fade into the immediate past.

This man was not one of those. This man sat on cold, wet concrete and looked up with anxiety in his face. This man was dressed in newspapers.

These were not newspapers he had wrapped around him at random. These were newspapers he had made carefully and artfully into clothing. These were newspapers whose purpose had reached new heights through this man’s endeavor. These were newspapers that told you more about the man than any study of his history could have revealed in an hour of conversation.

I was startled. Not by his situation, which is all too common on the streets of New York these days. But by his solution. And I wanted to help.

I reached into my pocket and felt a few coins. Insufficient either to help him significantly or reward him appropriately, his need and his artistry both vying for attention in my conscience.

“Do you have any cash on you,” I asked Chris.

She shook her head. “You were buying my dinner, remember?”

I did. And my wallet was safely tucked away underneath two layers of coat and jacket. And it was cold.

“I’ll give him something on the way back. We’ll only be ten minutes.” I smiled at him as I withdrew my hand from my pocket. “We’ll be back,” I said.

The line at the take-out counter was a little longer than I expected, and we stopped into another shop along the way that we had walked past for two years without venturing inside. The image of the newspaper man strayed into my mind, and I felt for the bills that I had stuffed in my pocket at the register.

It had started to rain, softly and without menace, but I was glad for the weather-proof shell and rubber soled boots I was wearing. And as I stood on the street corner, waiting for the light to change, I wondered what it would be like to wear newspapers for clothes. Wondered whether he had learned the skill from someone else. Wondered how often he  had to replace them. Wondered which papers worked best. Wondered what he will do if we really do start to get all our news electronically. I’m a fan of the iPad, but as a way to keep warm, it leaves a lot to be desired.

As the light changed and the mass of people on either side of 23rd street began their journeys towards the middle the crowd parted just enough for me to see the wall where he had been sitting.

It was empty. He was gone.

Suddenly the money rolled up in my hand felt like newspaper. And utterly useless. Its purpose taken away. I stopped for a moment as we reached Starbucks and looked inside, hoping to see him sitting in a chair. With or without a laptop. I wouldn’t have minded either way.

Chis went into the dry cleaners and asked about their drop off hours for this morning. The warmth of the dryers and the smell of the chemicals rolled into the night like excited children on Halloween.

I looked across 6th Avenue, and then back the way we came. There were people everywhere. Clothed. And invisible.

As we walked the final two blocks home I wondered why I hadn’t taken the time to follow my instinct when I first saw him.

Why I had thought that to put off an action now would give me an equal opportunity to carry it out later. Why I had assumed that circumstances wouldn’t change. That my plan would fit everyone else’s plan.

There is a difference between intent and action.

It is called opportunity.

And we miss them every single day.