My response offered no relief. He was unashamedly crying and wiping tears and crud away from his eyes. I was only seconds behind. A flash went through my mind—I saw Douglas first as a baby, and then I imagined him as a small child holding his mother's hand. I found myself wondering about all that might have happened since then, every broken promise and misstep that had landed him right here, in this doorway.
He claimed that he had a bank account, but that he couldn't remember at which bank. I mentioned the Chase branch across the street, but he rejected that out-of-hand, almost disdainfully. I nearly laughed.
Rummaging through his backpack, he looked for a bank statement as if to prove it to me. Giving up, Douglas told me that, because he doesn't have "proper ID," he couldn't get his money out anyway. I believed him. I'd be willing to bet that he does have a bank account, perhaps the last, small remnant of his former working life.
In a voice more resigned than threatening, Douglas told me that he would more than likely step out in front of a bus or train, someday, because "what's the point, I'm all alone and no one cares."
"I care," I said, and the words probably sounded as hollow to his ears as they did to mine. I asked him to promise me that he would get help from Social Services; New York City does have some decent help to offer. At least, that's what the Mayor says. I suggested that he go over to the Catholic Church around the corner—the one I had visited just a short time earlier—and perhaps seek help there. He politely, but firmly, declined. I didn't offer to walk him over.
Abruptly, Douglas pulled down his cap. He closed his eyes, and said, "I'm just going to stay here and turn into dust." I heard myself saying that we will all turn to dust one day—obviously, not my most brilliant hour. I did, however, encourage him again to seek help. He said nothing.
I returned three hours later, with some additional relief in hand, and—I had hoped—a more meaningful word of encouragement. But of course you already know how this ends. The dust and debris left behind in that doorway mocked my better intentions.
Douglas's face and voice haunt me still.
Tom Zampino is an attorney in private practice in New York City who makes his home on Long Island. He and his beautiful and accomplished wife have raised two daughters, four cats, two dogs, and various other domesticated creatures over the past 28 years.