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In every place I’ve ever lived, I’m now realizing, I’ve spent most of my travel time in the car. I grew up in Suburbia and that was just the way travel happened—in your car, mostly alone or with people you already know.

Strangers can be seen from the chest up at red lights or in passing on a two-lane road or as a blur as you drive past them on the street. They aren’t visible or distinct. And they aren’t ‘many’.

In New York, I spend most of my travel time walking or on the subway surrounded by a lot of other people – who are all spending their travel time walking or on the subway surrounded by a lot of other people.

And when this happens, you see a lot.

You see a lot of pretty things. Because New York is full of beautiful people.

You see some really ugly things. Things that rip your heart out. Because you aren’t in a wheelchair, deformed, irreversibly harmed. Because your young children aren’t standing with you at a bus stop at 11pm on a chilly Monday night when they should be home, sleeping, in a warm bed. Because you aren’t obese or otherwise unhealthy. Because you don’t look lost, lonely, sad, penniless, friendless, homeless, forgotten…

Because you’re praying to god that this is never you. That other people won’t walk by you and have their own hearts fill with pain.

There’s this moment—seeing these things that make me feel a physical discomfort that is akin to the time I got a shot in the bottom of my foot, ie. deep, stunning, raw, core shaking—where I get to choose where I want to go with the sickening sensation.

Is my life mine because of luck? What if that is me in 10 years, 10 months, 10 days? That’s not the life I want. Do I have a choice?

Can I help these people? Do they want to be helped? Do they even feel sad?

The other morning, I saw a few homeless people gathering their things from the building alcove where they’d presumably slept. There was one girl who looked to be in her 20’s. And as I ran by, pre-dawn, she said something that made them all burst out laughing. The sound was joyous. And full.

Who am I to think my life is better than theirs? How things look on paper aside, some days, I’m quite sure, it’s not.

And so the questions run. As I move down city streets wishing—for as long as I can remember now (7 or 8 years old?), on fallen eyelashes, birthday candles, found pennies, whatever I can find—that everyone be safe and happy.

Image credit: emanuela franchini

Join the discussion 21 Comments

  • Lindsey says:

    I love this, Julie. Yes, yes, yes. I relate to all of these feelings. And, like you, I wish on eyelashes, 11:11, pennies, the first star … xoxo

  • Julie Roads says:

    11:11!!! I knew I was missing an important one…

  • Blair says:

    If you’re interested in the literary implications of walking, I recommend Joshua Ferris’ new book The Unnamed. It’s about a guy who can’t stop walking – very tender and a good read.

  • Bonnie says:

    Love this post. It brings to mind how different it is walking/running through the streets of NYC versus the solitude of running along the ocean in MV. Looking forward to hitting the pavement with you in NYC soon.

    • Julie Roads says:

      Bonnie – I have a favorite loop at the moment…can’t wait to show it to you. Have to go really early though, to escape the fumage. Good thing I know you’re up for it!

  • Alisa Bowman says:

    I love trying to figure out the stories behind the strangers I pass by in the city.

    I think you are onto something. The outer trappings of our lives really have nothing to do with how happy we are in the inside. Assuming you have the basic needs met — food, water, shelter–the rest is all in your head.

  • Andi says:

    I think about nearly the same thing every single work day. Outside my office I am constantly surrounded by homeless people and I often wonder how they got there, can I help? are they beyond it? do they want it?

  • As always, Julie, I appreciate how you look at life.

    Maybe because it is a different environment, you’re really seeing, and thinking about what you’re seeing?

    Here in our gorgeous mountains (Big Bear, CA), you would think that when we walk, we would see the beauty around us. Instead, so many of us focus on getting where we are going. We only see the heels of the person in front of us. In our fear of getting lost, we don’t look around and see where we are.

    There is so much to see and learn about humans in a city. Thank you for reminding us to look, then look again—-and to think about what we’re seeing.

  • Jill Fisher says:

    Wonderful, Julie! One of our neighbors has in the last year become very involved with one particular
    “community” of homeless people in St.Louis. They “live” in an abandoned warehouse downtown. To her surprise, she discovered the help they wanted was things/food/ice to make them more comfortable where they are….NOT help to get out. They are happy being homeless, and some have actually chosen that life. Their community has the same characters and characteristics as ours…the leaders, the followers, the trouble makers, the givers and the takers. So you’re right…you never know what the people you see are thinking. To safety and happiness!

  • Lisa says:

    Your sentiments are so thoughtful and provocative.

    A few weeks ago I was out getting an evening workout in my kayak. The take-out was in a park that is home to quite a few people, and I’m always a little cautious about getting back long before dark. On this particular evening, I overshot it a bit, and was pulling in at dusk. A man was on the shore and watched me arrive. He ambled over and in between nonsense utterances, he asked me about my kayak. We had a tenuous conversation there, about my kayak, where I’d been, why I was out, etc. Then he began asking very specific questions about how to paddle a kayak and he seem genuinely interested and engaged. I asked him to please put his cigarette out so I could come closer, and then I demonstrated how to hold the paddle, how to sit properly, etc. He really seemed to enjoy this, so, I invited him to sit in my boat, and then proceeded to give him a short lesson in paddling.

    He really appreciated it; but really, I appreciated it too. I told him I’d look for him when I’m in the park, and he could have a lesson anytime.

    I haven’t seen him since.

  • Emanuela says:

    Very well written article, I can relate to a lot of the things you wrote and I’m pleased to see you used one of my images. I’ll definitely come back to read more.

    • Julie Roads says:

      Hi Emanuela! I think you’re one of the first artists that’s ever found me b/c I used one of their pics! So thrilled to have you hear – love your work!!! And thank you!

  • Brewgasm says:

    Wait, you got shot in the bottom of the foot? Now I need to hear that story.

  • I am forever wishing on stars, or making crazy deals with God, or thinking that if I finish chewing by the time the email sends, the proposal will be accepted…as well as praying for the well-being of the homeless people I see on the street (and there are a lot of homeless people on the streets here). Its exhausting.

  • Lindsey says:

    As I’m sure you can imagine, Paris is full of homeless people on every corner. No matter how ritzy the neighborhood, they’re there. Everyday on my metro commute to work, I hear the speeches of at least 2 homeless individuals begging for some change or a restaurant ticket – their speeches are the same, word for word, everyday and while it annoys most passengers, I feel torn. I’m by no means wealthy but I can spare some change – but do I believe their stories? If I offered them my apple, would they accept it or scoff at it because it isn’t money? I hate to think of the misery of others but what’s to say they’re more miserable than the woman sitting next to me who refused to spare 50 centimes from her Louis Vuitton handbag?

  • Shannon says:

    Your words really resonated with me. I, like you, am very sensitive to other people’s feelings. It’s like they infect me with their sadness, joy, anger, fear, whatever. Sometimes it’s easier to turn a blind eye to the less fortunate just to ease my own discomfort.

    I’m far from being an expert, but in my experience there are 2 kinds of homeless.. the kind that want your help & the kind that don’t. I’ve offered food before only to be cussed out. If I’ve got a € in my pocket, I’ll hand it over. But I can’t change the nature of these people or the world alone. They too have control over their destinies, and if they choose to accept aid. I keep hoping things will get better & do what I can :)

  • Leon Noone says:

    G’Day Julie,

    I wanted to contact you because this post of almost two months ago is the last I received from you.
    This morning i received two comments on a post you published in May.
    If I’ve been inadvertently “unsubscribed” could you please put me back on the list. I’ve always enjoyed your blog among the mountain of intense stuff I get from all sorts of people desperate to sell me something.
    I trust that everything’s OK with you and that you have a great Christmas.

    By the way, did you hear about the 3 Ages of Santa?
    1 You believe in Santa
    2 You don’t believe in Santa
    3 You are Santa



    • Julie Roads says:

      Hi Leon,
      Nope – not unsubscribed. I haven’t written since October for various reasons…hoping things will change soon. Thank you so much for taking the time to get in touch—and for your kind words. Happy holidays!

  • Sarah Allen says:

    Wonderful post, beautifully written. It is heart wrenching to see those kinds of things. I’ve only been to New York a short time myself, but thats enough to understand what you’re talking about. Best of luck with all the writing!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  • Jasmine says:

    Its exhausting. I am forever wishing on stars, or making crazy deals with God, or thinking that if I finish chewing by the time the email sends, the proposal will be accepted…as well as praying for the well-being of the homeless people I see on the street (and there are a lot of homeless people on the streets here).

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