On Thursday night, after a brief foray into New Jersey, I returned to New York City by train, arriving a little after midnight at Penn Station. I walked upstairs into the arrival hall, turned toward the Seventh Avenue exit, and emerged in front of Madison Square Garden before walking east on 33rd Street toward the subway station from where I would take the Q train downtown into Brooklyn. As I walked down 33rd Street, still wet and glistening from the rain earlier that evening, still lashed by the leftover winds from that downpour, I noticed the homeless: on the sidewalk, pushed up against the buildings, laying on cardboard sheets made from boxes, their belongings–sometimes in bags, sometimes lying around loose–stuffed into corners, sometimes doubling as pillows. Some talked to each other, yet others had already turned in for the night, curled up tightly and efficiently into bodyheat-conserving positions. They formed a somber and ragged guard for my walk to the train that would take me back home, a grim reminder of the co-existence of their desperate situation with the wealth and power of this great city.
Earlier that evening, I had driven my good friend’s borrowed Mercedes back to his suburban home in Central New Jersey. I had driven it over the magnificent Verrazano Narrows Bridge, its engineering marvels the perfect stage to showcase the powerful, ready-to-supply-oodles-of-horsepower precision-engineered engine of my vehicle. I drove on broad, multi-lane highways, equipped with scanning devices that read off electronic charges for tolls from a card attached to the windshield of my car, past other expensive vehicles–Audis, BMWs, Lexuses–carrying well-heeled professionals back to their undoubtedly comfortable residences. I was guided unerringly to my destination by a global positioning device that had efficiently and quickly calculated the shortest and fastest route and pointed me along it with a combination of crystal clear graphics and peremptory commands (‘Turn left on Newman Springs Road!’). I arrived in time for dinner, drank several glasses of a smooth Pinot Noir and a bold Cabernet Sauvignon, all the while chatting with my friend’s teenaged children while they did their homeworks suitably complemented with occasional consultation of their iPads. After our sumptuous meal with the wine flowing throughout, I was driven to the station to catch my train back to New York City. On the way back, I leisurely stretched out on the large seats in my air-conditioned coach and read several articles from an old issue of the New York Review of Books to while away the seventy-minute ride over and through track and tunnel into the subterranean depths of Manhattan.
It was an evening where I was surrounded by technological accomplishment and power, by personal success and comfort, by the trappings of the good and leisurely life, by the ingenious accomplishments of our civilization. My arrival in New York City filled out the picture: it brought me face to face with the sharp contrasts in fortune that lie uneasily alongside each other, a reminder of this world’s sweepstakes, conducted daily with their winners and losers.