We see them every day on the streets.
Most of us walk on by.
Our Brother’s Keeper
One morning when I was 18, I saw a man who had collapsed on a subway platform. Like everyone else in that swarming rush-hour press of people, I passed him by. The man probably needed medical attention, but I was hurrying to my job as a page at a New York City bank, where I was earning money for school. My dad, a city fire fighter, had always warned me of the streets: “Beware, and look straight ahead.” Still, it bothered me. I could have at least tried to find a policeman.
Nearly 20 years later, another subway scene had a lasting effect on me.
My husband, Jim, and I were raising our three teenagers in rural Pennsylvania, where our son Leonard, was diagnosed with a pediatric type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His treatment at the Sloan-Kettering hospital in Manhattan threw us into a hectic routine: Leonard and I stayed in the city during the day and traveled by subway to my niece’s home in Flushing, Queens, at night.
We had taken a cab from the hospital to the subway that rainy Monday afternoon. Leonard was feeling woozy from chemotherapy. I had to stop on the sidewalk outside the subway entrance and prop him up on one of our suitcases while he wretched into a plastic bag. People pushed past us with that look-straight-ahead manner that I remember from my own commuter days. As the rain fell harder, I silently prayed.
“Lady, you need help.”
The voice startled me. A rough looking stranger loomed over us.
“No, we’re okay,” I responded hastily.
But instead of vanishing into the flow of people, he stood quietly and observed. I clutched the handle of one suitcase tightly; it contained all the money I had for the week.
“Lady, the man insisted, “you need help.”
When I mumbled something about being on our way to Flushing, he grabbed a suitcase from me, hoisted it onto his shoulder and headed down the subway steps. I had no choice but to clutch Leonard’s hand and the other suitcase and scramble after him. Our week’s cash was riding on the stranger’s shoulder.
After ducking under the turnstile, the man stepped onto a crowded subway car. I feared we would lose him, but a few stops later he got off, right where we had to change to a local. We followed him.
This car was less crowded, so I had an opportunity to study the man. He wore faded blue jeans, shabby sneakers and an old army jacket. A ring full of keys jangled from his belt.
It was still raining when we reached Flushing. I was amazed that he had come all this way with us. But when I turned to thank him, he had already stepped into the street and was hailing a passing cab. The driver sped by; I could understand why—no one was going to stop for this fellow.
I second cab inched near in the slow-moving traffic, and he grabbed the back door handle. The cabbie yelled, but the man held on until the cab stopped.
“Come on lady,” he hollered. He shoved the suitcase onto the seat, ushered us in, then closed his fingers around a five-dollar bill I pressed into his hand.
The whole incident lasted about 20 minutes. I never saw the man again, but his parting words haunted many restless nights. Just before he slammed the door, he had said, “Don’t abandon me.”
Leonard’s recovery was slow but steady. By the time we returned to Pennsylvania to stay, Jim got a job back in New York. Our lives continued to seesaw between the two places. Jim came home on weekends and I made frequent trips to the city.
I was aware of the growing number of homeless people. It troubled me to see them huddled over sidewalk grates to keep from freezing. I wanted to help, but all I did was pray for them. What more could one person do?
For two years I had noticed the same man lying near a bridge that I passed when I drove out of the city. One morning something caught my attention. He was now covered by a pink blanket, apparently homemade. It was a tiny detail against the vast backdrop of life in New York City, but it jumped out at me. I could do that, I thought. Sewing was one of my favorite pastimes.
That night, I searched through my sewing materials for scraps. “What do you have that you don’t want?” I asked my children. They dug through their wardrobes and I began to sew.
The result was a seven-by-seven foot quilt made of old blue jeans. We assembled it on the kitchen table. When folded and stitched, it became a sleeping bag large enough to hold a man and a few possessions.
We sewed eight that winter of 1985. Then Jim and I drove into the city to deliver them on the streets. We had no idea where to begin, so we waited until sundown and started driving around. But freezing rain had left the streets deserted. We finally decided to give up and return to Jim’s apartment in Queens.
“Stop!” I called out as we neared the bridge.
A solitary figure was huddled in the shadows of an abutment. Jim got out of the car and held up the homemade quilt. “Could you use a sleeping bag?”
That was the beginning of a family craft we dubbed My Brother’s Keeper.
Then one day a neighbor gave me a piece of fabric from her sewing. “Can you use this?” she asked. I was unaware anyone had noticed what we had been doing.
“Why don’t you come show the women at church how to make those quilts?” she asked.
It took me by surprise. I had never considered asking others to join us in our quilt making. We decided to invite people from all the area churches.
Not long after, I nervously greeted a gathering of women from United Methodist, Catholic, Quaker and Assembly of God churches. I spread the patchwork square of fabric on the table and began layering it with insulation. Then I placed a second square on top and started tying off the quilt.
I stitched the sides and rolled it into a sleeping bag with necktie handles. One woman got up, ran to the phone and quickly dialed. “I want you to come right down here,” she insisted to a friend. “You’ve got to see this!”
From that point on, the project was never ours alone.
Today Jim and I deliver as many sleeping bags as we can. Not everyone wants our help, but most are grateful.
One day we saw a girl standing on the curb, wearing a shawl over her head and holding a paper cup. My husband brought the car to a stop. He approached her and asked, “Can you use a sleeping bag?”
She clutched it and started to cry as Jim quietly walked away.
We were distributing bags outside a shelter as people were turned out into the night, when a young man approached my. He said he was 19 and had stayed his allotted time at the shelter. He was facing a six-week wait on the streets until there was an opening at a halfway house.
I gave him a sleeping bag. Without a word he pulled me to his shoulder and hugged me.
I am still cautious on the streets, but I no longer pass by people in need. I stop, just as someone once stopped for me on a rainy Manhattan sidewalk. These people are as human as their hugs, and they must not be abandoned.
The Sleeping Bag Project has since expanded across the United States, and even to other countries. Because homelessness still continues to be a reality, My Brother’s Keeper will continue to do what it can to be the hands and feet of compassion to those in need.