Saturday, October 23, 2010


Today we were walking by the subway station at the top of our street and noticed a display of flowers by the entrance. There was also a platter of sandwiches and a picture of the man in the wheelchair who usually sits by the stairs panhandling. His name was Gilbert. He died of a heart attack 3 days ago.

When I got home I looked online to find out what had happened to him. This is what I found.

What really got my attention was the comment section. I was absolutely appalled at some of them. I was actually moved to comment myself:

"I can’t believe how horribly uncaring people can be about other human beings. So quick to label good and bad, and to treat accordingly. Gilbert was a human being. He may have done some terrible things, he may have done some wonderful things. I have only lived here for a year and a half. I live on 2nd Street and would see Gilbert at least twice a day. The only personal experiences I had with him involved sweet comments he would make about my daughter, to which I would reply “thank you” and be on my way. To be honest, I didn’t engage him because I was a bit afraid. I had seen him in heated discussions with people from time to time, and didn’t know if he was mentally ill or prone to violence. Having an infant with me at all times has made me wary.
The point is that when I saw the display by the subway entrance today and learned that he had died, I was sad. I was sad because a person had died. This man, like the rest of us, made choices in his life - good and bad. What purpose does speaking ill of him do now? If people want to mourn him, who are you to try to prevent that by trying to tarnish their good memories? What good could you possibly think you are doing? He's dead. If you don’t want to mourn, then go on with your day and show some respect for another human being by allowing others to mourn his loss. He may not have made your choices, or even the right choices, but he had challenges in life like the rest of us, and he lived and died, which is all any of us will ever do."

Is it just me, or have people completely lost touch?

The one thing I didn't mention in the comment, and I'm not sure why, is something that has haunted me for months. One night last winter, I was coming home on the subway alone and decided to fill up my MetroCard on the way out of the station. It was fairly late and there was no one around. I was at the machine and had just finished my transaction when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I looked over, and inches away from me, right up against the machine was a wheelchair. When I took a better look I noticed that there was a person in it, doubled over with his head right in the corner against the wall. I was horrified. The thought that a human being was forced to endure this kind of indignity and suffering made me physically ill. I'm having a hard time just writing about it now.

I don't care if Gilbert was a drug dealer or a thief. Maybe he deserved to be in prison. But he did NOT deserve to be stuffed into a corner like a bag of garbage. I judge him based on the experiences I had with him, and there were people who cared for him. I can't say it enough. He was a human being. It has really made me stop and think about how I want to treat people in this world, and what kind of person I want to be. I want to be the kind of person that extends a hand instead of turning away. I want to be the kind of person who gives someone the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming the worst. I want to be the person that gives comfort when they have the chance to do so.

I am going to remember Gilbert. And I am going to be a better person for it.


  1. Well said, indeed.
    I was rather taken aback by some of the comments left as a result of my post announcing his passing. I was torn between publishing them or not, but truly don't like to censor. Luckily, some of my readers also left lovely comments.
    Like you, I will miss Gilbert. He certainly was a part of my daily life here in Carroll Gardens and a s such, he leaves a big hole.

  2. I remember Gilbert fondly as well. Like your own experience, Gilbert would smile and say sweet things to June and Zoey every day, and I enjoyed the few words we tossed back and forth. He teased me about my Tigers cap and joked that when I was done heaving Zo's stroller down the stairs if I could come back and get him.

    Thanks for writing that was beautiful. To most people Gilbert was just another guy down on his luck, maybe an annoyance, maybe dangerous, but to someone, somewhere, at some point in his life, he was everything.

    I'm glad there was a makeshift memorial.