NEW YORK – For several years now, New York poet Jack Agueros has been living with Alzheimer’s. Slowly but unrelentingly, the disease is erasing his memories. As his daughter Natalia told The New York Times, “There is nothing sadder than a poet without words.” The following is a homage to a great poet.
I was irritated with my wife. After waiting for several weeks to carve out some free time to go find a new set of night tables (her own night table had collapsed under the weight of books), we were finally on our way when she stopped to talk to a stranger near our house.
Although this incident happened some months ago, I only understood its import the other morning when I read a poem by Jack Agueros, a New York poet, which brought that event back to mind.
So, let me backtrack. I was walking with my wife, Silvia, to the bus stop when a young man passed in front of us. He was of probable East Indian descent, shabbily dressed and talking to himself. The last point is not so unusual for New York City, but what told me he wasn’t of sound mind was that, on that frigid morning, he was shoeless, his feet dirty and callused.
Seeing his plight, my wife asked him, “Sir, do you need shoes?”
The man looked surprised and mumbled a response that my wife took as a positive answer. Silvia then told me to wait a few minutes as she turned back toward our house.
“What’s going on?” I asked myself. “We are very short of time and my wife is going back to pick up some shoes for a man she doesn’t even know.”
I was annoyed, but didn’t have any choice but to wait for her. The man went to sit on a bench nearby. I decided to keep an eye on him to make sure he waited for her. I tried to engage him in conversation but was unable to. He obviously preferred to continue in his own world. How my wife was able to reach him escapes me.
Silvia’s errand was taking more time than I had expected, and at a moment when I wasn’t paying attention, the man disappeared.
“Well,” I said to myself, “that will show her she can’t be a Samaritan all the time.” I walked up and down the avenue, then up a side street, but couldn’t see him.
Frustrated, I retraced my steps and went back home to tell my wife what had happened. Just as I turned a corner, I saw her talking to the shoeless man. (He had gone back in the same direction as my wife.) She was handing him a pair of practically new shoes, part of a bunch that we had decided to donate to a homeless shelter. “Most probably,” I thought, “he will now go and try to sell them.”
I was wrong again. My wife’s generous thoughts prevailed over what I believed was my common sense.
While sitting, waiting for the bus, we saw the young man walk by again, proudly wearing his new shoes, a smile on his face. It was the sight of the man’s pleasure as well as my wife’s unassuming kindness that I recalled upon reading a Jack Agueros poem months later.
In “Psalm for Distribution,” Agueros, a poet of the dispossessed, writes:
on 8th Street
between 6th Avenue and Broadway
there are enough shoe stores
with enough shoes
to make me wonder
why there are shoeless people
on the earth.
You have to fire the Angel
in charge of distribution.
The poem is set a few blocks away from where this incident took place.
Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award, is an international public health consultant and a writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.