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A Matter of Shoes and the Weight of Books and Poetry

I was irritated with my wife. After waiting for several weeks to carve out some free time to go find a new set of night tables (her own night table had collapsed under the weight of books), we were finally on our way to buy new ones when my wife stopped to talk to a stranger near our house. Though the incident happened some time ago, I only understood its import this morning upon reading a poem by the late Jack Agüeros, a New York poet of Puerto Rican parents, which brought that event back to my mind. But I am jumping ahead, so let me backtrack.

I was walking with my wife, Silvia, to the bus stop when a young man passed in front of us. He was of probable East Indian descent, shabbily dressed and talking to himself, the last being not so unusual in and of itself for New York City. But what told me he wasn’t of sound mind was that on that frigid morning he was shoeless, his feet dirty and calloused.

Seeing his plight, my wife asked him, “Sir, do you need shoes?” The man looked surprised, and mumbled a response which my wife took as a positive answer. Upon hearing that, Silvia said to me, “Just wait a few minutes,” and turned back toward our house.

“What is going on” I asked myself, “We are very short of time and my wife is going back to pick up some shoes for a man she doesn’t even know?” I was annoyed, but didn’t have any choice but to wait for her. In the meantime, the man went to sit on a bench nearby. I decided to keep an eye on him, to make sure that he would wait for her and not try to walk away. I tried to engage him in conversation but was unable to. He obviously preferred to continue inhabiting his own world. How my wife was able to reach him escapes me.

My wife’s errand was taking more time than I had anticipated and, at a moment when I wasn’t paying attention to him, the man disappeared.

“Well,” I said to myself, “that will show her that she can’t be a Samaritan all the

time…” I walked up the avenue and down and up a side street, but couldn’t see him.

Finally, frustrated, I retraced my steps and went back home to tell my wife what had happened. Just as I turned a corner, however, I saw her talking to the shoeless man. (He had gone back in the same direction as my wife.) She was handing him a pair of practically new shoes, part of a bunch that we had decided to donate to a homeless shelter.

“Most probably,” I thought, “he will now go and try to sell the shoes.” I was wrong again. My wife’s generous thoughts prevailed over what I believed was my common sense. While sitting waiting for the bus we saw the young man walk by again, proudly wearing his new set of shoes, a smile on his face. It was the man’s pleasure as well as my wife’s unassuming kindness that I recalled upon reading a Jack Agüeros poem months later. In his “Psalm for Distribution,” Agüeros, a poet of the dispossessed, writes:

Lord

on 8th Street

between 6th Avenue and Broadway

there are enough shoe stores

with enough shoes

to make me wonder

why there are shoeless people

on the earth.

Lord,

You have to fire the Angel

in charge of distribution.

The poem is set a few blocks away from where this incident took place.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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