Two weeks had passed before I learned what happened.
I hadn’t seen him in several months. At our last meeting, the trees were full of red and orange leaves. He, as usual, was not interested in talking to me. He was sitting in front of a closed shop.
“Hi. How are you?”
People in the neighborhood took care of him. Surrounding him were several plastic bags holding neatly stacked styrofoam containers filled with soup. Another bag held several pastries, most of them still wrapped in clear cellophane. Another bag contained many empty, crushed water bottles.
“Anything new happening?”
He was old enough to be my father, though he looked like he could be a grandfather. Time had taken away some of his teeth. The joints of his fingers were knobby. Crescents of dirt were caked underneath his nails. He was wearing a different coat.
“You got a new coat.”
He previously wore a blue windbreaker; now he was wearing a puffy black jacket that was three sizes too big for him. His thin neck poked out above the collar. The jacket was unzipped and showed the soiled white tee shirt he wore underneath.
“Any more thoughts about going inside for the winter?”
People were starting to gather around us. In that particular neighborhood, passersby routinely stopped and gawked whenever I spoke with people who appeared obviously homeless. They were staring at us, their mouths hanging open, their faces perplexed.
“Can I help you?” I barked at them, doing nothing to mask the irritation in my voice.
In response, they closed their mouths, turned away, and walked on. (Related: One of the fastest ways to get people in New York to stop looking at you is to say, “Hello!”)
“Where are you sleeping now?”
“In the park.”
Sometimes he slept in a box. He usually slept on a flattened box, and it often wasn’t in the park. People had seen him underneath nearby construction scaffolding. Others saw him in the subway station, though he didn’t seem to use the subways at all.
He said that he had been outside for “a while”. Records from the shelter and from concerned citizens in the neighborhood suggested that he had been outside for at least 20 years.
“I know you’ve heard this before, but just humor me: You don’t have to stay outside. You can stay in a small studio apartment where they serve two meals a day, you can store your belongings there—”
I felt for him. I wouldn’t want to talk to me if I were him.
When homeless people disappear from their usual locations, I wonder: Have they moved to a different neighborhood? Were they arrested and now in jail? Did they find a place to live? Are they in a hospital?
I often never find out.
This man had died. He contracted pneumonia and was in an intensive care unit for about a week. Was there a code? Did the physicians withdraw care? If so, who made that decision? Was anyone with him when he died?
There was no funeral. There was no memorial. Did anyone from the neighborhood notice that he was gone? Did any of those people who gawked at us notice his absence? Did people assume that he ultimately agreed to go into housing, that he finally changed his mind?
Did anyone think that he had died? Did anyone miss him?
Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at In White Ink.
Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.