About 25 years ago, while working in the constituent office of a New York City state senator, I gave $20 and a gold crucifix to a homeless alcoholic trying to get to a rehab center, or so he claimed.
I knew the cash would probably go to cheap vodka, but the crucifix and a carefully worded note on Senate stationery that I wrapped around it, I hoped, might spur the man to action.
They did. That very night he cut his wrists with the cross (and lived, according to the police officer who found him and dialed the number on my office letterhead the next day).
Some years later, I came upon an unkempt and precariously seated man at the 77th Street and Lexington Avenue subway station, dangling his legs from the train platform at rush hour. There were people around, but no one was doing anything to assist the fellow, which angered me. A train would be coming along any moment, and he definitely was in a position to be struck by it.
So, in a harrumph to the other bystanders, I reached for his outstretched hand to help him up. He gripped my wrist tightly and tried to pull me onto the tracks, which evidently was his plan -- a memory kicked back into consciousness by the subway-pushing death this week.
New York City's street people have an uncanny knack for frustrating our better angels, and most New Yorkers, including this one, learn in time to stop trying to help them.
Last week, though, we rightly celebrated NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo for an extraordinary kindness. DePrimo, 25, of Holbrook, couldn't bear to see a vagrant named Jeffrey Hillman sitting shoeless in the cold, so he bought him warm socks and a pair of boots at a nearby store. DePrimo personally put the socks on Hillman's swollen feet in a gesture more Mother Teresa than Joe Friday.
Now we learn that Hillman, for whatever reason, has chosen to go barefoot again, which has been his norm for a number of years. (He also isn't homeless, as many had originally assumed.)
Anyone working around Grand Central Terminal would know Hillman's habits. He is a ubiquitous and heartbreaking figure in midtown during wintertime. On the coldest days of the year he tends to wear the least possible clothing, and never any shoes, as he paces quickly from block to block trying to stay warm. Even callous Manhattanites cringe when they see his condition, although they are able to ignore 98 percent of the other men and women who roam the city's streets on any given day.
Last year around Christmastime I called 911 about Hillman twice: Once to report that a man was in danger of hypothermia and once to report his near-complete nakedness, which I thought might elicit a faster response. I'm sure 100 other New Yorkers did the same thing. The police came both times, but they were unable to hold him for exercising his right to self punishment.
Not all the people we see on the streets are as far gone as Hillman seems to be. Sometimes they just need a job, a break or a swift kick in the backside to rejoin society as productive citizens.
But some minority of them will never get better. They will insist on going shoeless until the morning they fail to wake up from the cold.
The question is what to do about them -- about us -- in the meantime. If a person refuses to accept help, does that relieve us of our moral responsibility as individuals to offer it? And when we begin squelching those better angels in us, where does that leave us as human beings?
Officer DePrimo surely had it right, even if Jeffrey Hillman didn't really want those boots. Let's hope DePrimo doesn't harden quite as quickly as the rest of us have.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.