Featherstone: Homeless on the subway: step over or step in?
On the stairway leading out of the Fulton Street station, in the financial heart of the richest nation in the world, a tiny woman lay under a heap of blankets.
My husband and I walked past her with our 7-year-old son, Ivan.
"Maybe she's dead," Ivan said calmly.
Something about her motionless form, and the incomprehensible stillness of a body lying in such an uncomfortable position on the slant of the stairs, panicked me.
When we exited at John Street, I called 911. After a lengthy back-and-forth, several truckfuls of responders showed up, sirens blaring. I went back down the stairs, far ahead of them, to check on her.
She was just waking up. Standing, she was no more than four feet tall, but there was nothing fragile about her. I asked if she needed anything. "No, I'm fine," she said, without affect.
I went upstairs to tell the paramedics to go away. "She's fine," I said. "Sorry to bother you." They looked annoyed.
I was shaking. I was relieved that she was OK, but I also felt like a huge idiot -- and rightly so. In my cowardice, I had wasted public resources. I should have looked under the blankets, but I'd been too afraid of finding a corpse.
A few days later, the Bloomberg administration released some relevant numbers. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, the number of homeless people sleeping on New York City's subways rose to 1,841 in January, increasing 13 percent from last year, and up 118 percent from 2005.
My reaction to the tiny woman on the steps was foolish, but one small part of it was correct: A human being sleeping on the subway steps is an emergency.
My family walked through Zuccotti Park, which was, not long ago, occupied by protesters questioning our society's extreme inequalities. My son said, with a resigned shrug: "If you gave her all your money, she would be OK. But then you would be poor."
Kids need to find ways to cope with the city they live in. But we grown-ups have to try to make a better one.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.