Gilberto Medina (far right). Photo: Sam Casalino
I've lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, for over eighteen years, and through at least fifteen of those years every workday I took the subway from Carroll Street into Manhattan and then back again. A constant presence by the subway entrance and exit was a man who asked me (and everyone else) for money. When one day I asked him why he wasn't able to find a job, he showed me a colostomy bag with yellow liquid in it and mouthed that he had cancer.
He did some
work, occasionally sweeping the plaza in front of the subway entrance, but then he lost the lower half of his left leg and was confined to a wheelchair. I gave him money once in a blue moon, and carried his wheelchair up and down the steps a couple of times. But I assumed he'd spend it on drink and drugs. I didn't know his name. I could have said more, been more civil. It is not my finest moment as a human being.
He died three weeks ago and I learned that he was called Gilberto Medina
. Judging by the reminiscences on the local blog Pardon Me For Asking
, Gilberto was a Vietnam vet, adversely affected by Agent Orange, and a kindly soul with daughters in Puerto Rico, who was never a threat and was looked after by a cousin in Red Hook. Or he was a local heroin dealer, who dealt drugs to minors, as well as a liar, thief, a user himself, and a menace to society, his service and daughters a convenient fiction. Of course, he may have been some, or even all, of those things. Who knows what was in that colostomy bag, or whether he even had cancer?
I used to get mad with Gilberto: day in and day out, asking for change, making enough to do whatever else he did with his day, but never changing his routine, never saving, always asking for "a couple of pennies." However, I was sad when he vanished and came back with half of one leg gone, and I'm sad he's no longer there. And are we gainfully employed so different? We work our patch just like Gilberto, although ours may be a cubicle or an office. We get paid for doing something that may or may not be valuable to society. And then we come home and anesthetize ourselves with alcohol, nicotine, television, or the Internet. Then we get up and do the same thing the next day. And all for a couple of pennies.