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How could hanging around with people so poor give Mark Lanham such a rich experience? Go figure …
Right before Christmas of 2016, I started serving free coffee to the homeless on Union Square.
At the time, I was fighting the downward gravitational pull of the holidays. Nine years into pursuing my “acting” dream, I was nowhere near making my rent doing the thing which, more than anything else, gave me life. I really needed encouragement.
Somehow, I believed what I needed might be wrapped up in encouraging others. The idea of serving coffee came to me because I spend a lot of time and money in Starbucks. I thought that if I could give those people sitting on the sidewalk something simple – like a hot cup of coffee – maybe I could put some hope in those cups too. So I spent 50 bucks I didn’t really have on a coffeemaker and one of those big pump-top thermoses and got to work.
I didn’t have any real qualifications for this. Back in Omaha, I had helped out at Siena Francis House, a homeless shelter that provided unconditional support to the city’s homeless population. That meant Francis House was a ‘wet” shelter. They took in people who still had substance abuse problems. It made things lively at times, but it taught me a lot about acceptance, and the challenges of loving those whose behavior is less than loveable.
Humility isn’t something that gets lauded much in our culture today. My parents were humble people, so maybe it’s genetic. I was also lucky to know Fr Ken Vavrina, who had worked with the Missionaries of Charity – Mother Teresa’s order – in Calcutta. This guy was the real deal – he owned only one pair of pants.
Something began to happen as I gave out coffee through that winter. When you put both your knees on the ground to serve someone, it changes your perspective. Being eye-level with anyone brings understanding.
As I got on a first-name basis with my “regulars,” our conversations got deeper. The paradox, though, was perplexing. How was it that I was being granted such a rich experience being around those who were so poor?
So much was happening that I started keeping a diary:
Saturday, November 18, 2018. 12.10pm
“Toward the end of my run today, I served J – one of my regulars who never seems to stop going down in the world. It was after noon. The coffee was almost gone and not as hot as it should have been, but I didn’t seem to mind. He was wearing a hoodie. So it wasn’t until he reached over and took the cup that I saw his left eye looked like it had been bashed in with the blunt end of a baseball bat, so badly swollen and discolored I wondered if he’d lost the eye completely. I felt that pain I get in the back of my legs every time I see something indescribably terrible and sad. I didn’t bring it up.
Some things are too painful to talk about, even with someone who’s been giving you coffee for two years now, knows your demons, and that you could very well have been stumbling drunk last evening, fallen on your face and done the whole thing to yourself. I know if I lost an eye, at least a dozen people – and probably more would cry for me. But who cries for J? ‘A man divine as myself.’ as Walt Whitman wrote. And when I dies, will anyone come pay their respects? Will there be any kind of service?
Or merely a quick trip to Potter’s Field, where the only hope lying therein is to somehow be reborn into another life that’s a little kinder – or only a little less cruel. I’ve seen some things doing this that, in a perfect world, nobody ought to see. But the world isn’t perfect, no matter how much we pretend it is. And for me, to not see these things – painful as they are – is to be spiritually blind.”
It’s really bipolar out there. Like the encounter above, there are incidents that are sad and make me wonder how long I can keep on doing this. (Fortunately, I’s eye did heal up.) But there are also things that are so unintentionally funny that, even in my wildest writer’s imagination, I couldn’t dream them up.
One such incident was late one winter on the Barnes and Noble side of the square. A couple of my regulars were hanging out with a guy I’d never seen before. This guy was holding a clear glass human skull – actually a bottle for some brand of vodka. The vodka was long gone, but this guy was standing there, holding the skull aloft, dazzling in the bright sunlight. In vain, he was trying to recall Shakespeare’s famous speech where Hamlet eulogizes his departed friend, Yorick.
I don’t usually lead with: “Hey, I’m an actor,” but as I got them some much-needed coffee, I found myself feeding this guy Hamlet’s lines like a faithful stage prompter. “Alas, poor Yorick … I knew him Horatio … a fellow of infinite jest…” which he as faithfully repeated.
Recalling that impromptu street theater is a valuable reminder.
Though parts of this one-man charity seem endlessly sad, there are among them moments that shine – moments of infinite jest.
And hope, too. I got a great present my second year into doing this. It was the Saturday before Easter, the last Saturday in March – which had both come and gone like a lion. That day, though, was bright. I always have a full pot on Saturdays. Usually I’m sold out by noon.
My first three customers were regulars. One by one, they told me that since they’d seen me last, they’d gotten into temporary housing. By day they were still on the street “spange-ing – a mash-up street term for “getting up spare change.” But by night, they were no longer sleeping on the trains.
And, though I had nothing to do with it, I celebrated. Out here, on the square – which I like to call “Communion Square” – a win for one of us, or in this case three of us, is a win for all.
How can I make a difference,? You start with a single step. There are many opportunities to be a caring superhero in New York City, but here are just a few that are close to home.
Whether you have experience in nutrition or teaching, or want to work with local farmers, there are a bunch of ways to give back. Help deliver fruit and veg to families, pack supplies into boxesfor distribution, or help out in the office.
Helping people escape homelessness, Breaking Ground has ongoing opportunities for people with different skills, so keep an eye on the website. Right now, you could help with computer literacy or assist at a fancy fundraiser.
Providing shelter for vulnerable homeless young people, Covenant House needs help supporting residents in job skills or life skills workshops, organizing donated clothing, and even personal shoppers.
Your time could be spent visiting older people in their homes, taking them shopping, packing meals, answering the phone at one of the centers, or updating computerized records.
Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, volunteers are needed to serve meals and deliver food to the housebound. They’re also looking for people with skills in writing, gardening, and painting.
Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries
Get hands-on with the food pantry or the winter clothing closet, help provide life skills and empowerment for vets who’ve experienced homelessness or tend the produce on the HK
farm project roof.
St Luke’s soup kitchen
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the theater space on W46th St serves a hot meal to as many as 160 people. That means they need volunteers to help serve, as well as clear up.
Mark Lanham is an actor and writer who has performed at The Pearl, Signature Theatre, and The Delacorte Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park He’s appeared on the TV series Difficult People, IFC’s Onion News Network, and in ‘It’s A Lie, a music video for the British band Fiction Plane. He’s also a ghostwriter with 11 books to his credit. He works in Hell’s Kitchen. Anything Helps, a short play about his coffee serving, is being performed in Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Works Series on October 3.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of W42ST Magazine.