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I Spent That Saturday in Central Park...
I spent that Saturday, my first day in the city, in Central Park. Many people had told me that New York was the city for aspiring actresses. I desperately want to act, to be anyone but me, Shane Taylor, sitting there in Central Park afraid of the rapists and murderers. Of course rapists and murderers lurked in Welby, Colorado, but it just felt safe there. My cold sweat in no way reflected the humidity of July in New York. I, an 18 year old suburban girl in New York City, thought all homeless people were creepy men who raped and murdered girls like me. Imagine my fear when a homeless man introduced himself to me. “Hi, I’m Sage, short for Summer Sage.” He had come to sit, uninvited, on my bench. I recall first deliberately looking away from him, then thinking that his voice possessed a deceptive kindness, and finally running from him with all the speed I could muster.
The first time I met Sage, I ran from him. The second time I met Sage, I was alone again, eating my lunch in Bryant Park about two weeks later. In my suburban naiveté, I thought I had a stalker. “I’m Sage. Do you remember me?” This time I looked at him, taking in his filthy blonde hair and beard and his deep, honest hazel eyes. I was taken aback by those eyes. “You look like you could use some company.” He paused, waiting for me to respond. I didn’t. “Do you want to hear a story?” I turned away but didn’t leave. He took this as an answer to his question and began telling me his life’s story.
Summer Sage was a product of the free-livin’, free-lovin’ hippie days. In Chicago, Illinois, he was born to Joanne, rechristened Angel Raine and Steve. The young couple perfectly fit my hippie stereotypes. Although they truly loved Sage, drugs and friends “were a stronger draw than their own son.” Day after day they desperately panhandled to earn enough money to buy drugs; the drugs they used night after night with their friends, neglecting young Sage. As the trends changed from hippie loving to disco dancing to ‘80s glamour, Raine and Steve continued life as if stuck in time. Nothing ever changed. “For ten years I had no one,” Sage stated with a profoundly matter-of-fact tone. For ten years he had no one. Until his parents introduced him into their inner circle. At ten years old Sage joined his parents in smoking marijuana and taking hits of acid daily. “I finally felt like I was feeling something.” Sage stopped talking, and I looked at him for the first time since he had started his tale. In the shining sun his hazel eyes sparkled with the welling of tears. I felt a distinctly atypical urge to say something conveying my deep sympathy. He seemed to deserve my compassion more than anyone had before. As I opened my mouth to speak my phone rang. Desperate to avoid emotional human interaction, I answered the phone with unnecessary rapidity. The call had come from Samantha Peterson, a casting director for a small play. How could I have missed my shot at acting and a job to pay the high cost of living in New York City? In my heart, I knew the simple answer: Sage instinctively knew that deep down I really wanted the company, to hear his story, and an honest of human relationship. I think that in that moment, on that day, Sage knew me better than I knew myself.
In the following weeks as I gave in and took a job as a waitress, I couldn’t stop dwelling on this missed opportunity. Neither could I keep thoughts of Sage from my mind. I felt an increasingly deep desire to know the rest of his story and dreamt about young boys neglected by druggie parents. I knew that these nightmares would haunt me until I knew the story’s resolution. With this always nagging at my thoughts, I visited New York’s many parks in my free time with notions of seeing Sage again.
After two months of endless searching, I saw Sage outside 125th Street Bakery in the morning just before it opened. I stopped a few doors away, afraid of approaching him. I watched the owner of the bakery give Sage a box of various breads and pastries. I had never before witnessed a scene of such kindness. The baker must’ve been under the influence of Sage’s gentle charm. Even with my assumption of Sage having a tender nature, I continued to fear approaching him. I followed him, at a distance, to the edge of an alley a couple blocks away. The irony of my trailing behind a man who I had once believed to be stalking me was not lost on me, but my mission to contact him felt important.
“Danny, Sal, Jess! Breakfast!” he announced to an invisible audience. A girl and guy emerged from behind a dumpster at the end of the alleyway.
“Danny’s sick again,” stated the girl with a considerable measure of exasperation as the man quietly thanked Sage for the food before devouring a garlic bagel. “He couldn’t get a fix last night. It’s all the usual symptoms: nausea, chills, the shakes,” she explained between mouthfuls of banana nut muffin.
As Sage disappeared behind the dumpster to attend to Danny, I turned back toward the bakery not wanting to intrude at this time. Within a quarter of a block the girl had caught up with me, shouting, “Hey! Wait up! I saw you watching us and Sage says he knows you. You should come to the park with me, Sage, and Danny while we wait for Sale to get some coke. You could probably tell Danny’s an addict and he’s suffering withdrawal right now. Anyway, if you’re not busy, you should totally come to the park with us. By the way, I’m Jessica.” She was shockingly long-winded, but I felt drawn to her for reasons unknown.
“I’m Shane,” I responded, my brevity in stark contrast with her prolific invitation. Nevertheless, she seemed excited for me to join them. Sitting in the grass in Central Park, Danny moaned in pain as Jessica told me her story. Only two years older than I, she had grown up poor in Trenton, New Jersey and couldn’t afford to attend college. Like me she had wanted to escape reality by becoming an actress. When Jessica met Sage, she had prepared to return to New Jersey, frustrated with the difficulty of finding work. Sage offered her the chance to be part of his foster family which included Sal and Danny. Desperate for any alternative to returning to her grandparents’ house in Trenton, she graciously accepted. About three months after, I met Sage, and three months after that, I met Jess.
When I told Jessica that not three months before I had believed that all homeless people were victimizers and addicts, I was surprised to find that she had shared my sentiments prior to meeting Sage. She and I had found more common ground. She was starting to feel like my first ever best friend. Those thoughts about homeless people stemmed from ignorance, but Sage was different in other ways. Sage acted as the protector of the entire homeless community, sharing his baked goods with those who walked by and caring for the ones like Danny. Seeing how Sage cared for Danny was somewhat baffling. He used a secret store of money to buy drugs for Danny when withdrawal weakened him unbearably. I had assumed that after his childhood, Sage would feel distinctly inclined to avoid drugs and those who used them. Sage seemed to know my thoughts. Watching me watching Danny, he resumed his story where he had been interrupted two months before.
His aforementioned first feeling had not been joy or pleasure. Neither had it been some fantastic high. It was an odd combination of disappointment and estrangement. From the ages of ten to thirteen, he made great efforts to enjoy his parents’ lifestyle, but he innately knew that he would never find joy in a drug induced false reality. After deciding not to partake in the drug use surrounding him, he still could not achieve inner peace. Things his supposed role models told him conflicted with those he knew. Drugs would not, in fact, make him happier. Attending school did not waste time. The hypocrisy of his parents’ constant preaching about freedom for all in addition to their refusal to accept his choices drove Sage to move in with a friend’s family at fifteen. Throughout high school, thoughts of his parents plagued his mind. He could think of no way of helping them that didn’t involve forcing them to quit doing drugs. On the surface, this may seem a good idea, but it conflicted deeply with Sage’s belief in freedom of choice. Despite the double standards of his parents, they managed to pass on to him idealistic views of liberty.
Sage loved to learn and excelled in high school but found the structure limiting. He opted not to attend college although his foster family could’ve and would’ve paid for their perception of success. To Sage, life meant more than showing strangers the illusion of intelligence with a college degree. In the late ‘80s, fresh out of high school, Sage moved to New York City, in search of life’s true meaning. He found the most truth amongst the homeless and the most meaning in aiding them. At nineteen, he joined their ranks. He made this choice because he had “felt actual happiness for the first time ever,” amongst the unimpressive homeless.
Six hours had passed as I learned about Sage and contemplated his joy in life without money. By 1:00 pm Sal had returned with Danny’s cocaine, the latter had stopped moaning, and I had to get to work at Tom’s Diner. This meeting with Sage also lingered in my mind. My parents had taught me that money makes the world go round and is the root of all happiness. I had been attempting to live by that philosophy only to find myself more stressed and less content. These homeless people with whom I had spent the day lived in complete independence from society’s preoccupation with the monetary value of things. I found myself wanting to enjoy that freedom. How I felt jealous of those with no homes and nothing to show for their achievements was beyond me. I needed to know why I could so easily question the things I thought I knew. For the next two weeks, I gradually worked up the courage to initiate contact with the mismatched family who I had begun to believe were my friends. Loitering outside 125th Street Bakery, paranoia began to overtake me. I felt unsure of whether these people felt the same about me. Just before I took my first step away, the baker stepped out carrying a large box of baked goods.
“I’m George. You must be the girl Sage told me about, Shane, right? Did he send you for this?” As George held the box out to me, I opened my arms to accept it without thinking. “Enjoy,” said the baker as he re-entered his shop. By the time I opened my mouth to apologize for the misunderstanding, the bells on George’s door were ringing to signal its closing. I made the bold decision to personally deliver the box of baked goods. With confidence, I walked the two-and-a-half blocks to the alley in which Sage, Jess, Danny, and Sal had dwelled two weeks previous. As I got closer, anxiety began to overcome me again. My stride slowed as I thought that they would not welcome me or that they wouldn’t be there at all. My uneducated assumption that they would sleep in the same spot every night seemed stupid in that moment. New York is a big city with lots of nooks and crannies. Having convinced myself of my error in returning to this alley, my collision with Sage made me even more nervous. Looking directly into his eyes, I could see through his surprise that he was happy to see me.
“We have a visitor!” he announced. As I followed Sage deeper into the alley, my anxiety dissipated. Sal greeted me with a typical wordless smile while quietly taking a garlic bagel. Danny didn’t remember me from before and, I could tell he wouldn’t remember me afterward which didn’t bother me.
Jessica ran at me screaming with joy, then added so quietly that only I could hear “I hoped you’d come back.” She hugged me more tightly than I had ever been hugged before. That moment resulted in a permanent attachment between Jessica and myself. I definitely had a best friend now.
As we strolled through the park Jess told me the history of her foster family. Sal walked on her other side, listening to make sure she got the details and chronology correct. Sal’s father had been absent at his birth, leaving his mother, Jill, to experience “the most important moment and the greatest pain of her life alone.” Jess looked to Sal to check that she had quoted him properly, and he nodded for her to continue. Sal had never known his biological father and held no anger about that. He didn’t think he would want to know someone who would leave a pregnant woman alone or abandon his son. Throughout his childhood in Ohio, Sal’s mother had had a long series of abusive boyfriends. They had all done their part in stifling the young boy’s wild and creative personality. Some were verbally abusive, and others were physically abusive. Some targeted Sal, and others targeted Jill. Most used whichever combination fit their strengths. November 23, 1995 was Thanksgiving, but Sal had absolutely nothing to be thankful for. That was the day one of his mother’s boyfriends completely stamped the life out of him. Greg, Jill’s boyfriend at the time, sexually molested thirteen-year-old Sal. His entire character changed. He experienced an immediate conversion from an extroverted, fun-loving boy to an extremely wary introvert with trust issues. The only thing that makes him truly comfortable now is his routine. The abuse grew progressively worse in the following three years. Sal has never spoken of the worst of the abuse. He endured until he was sixteen when Greg proposed to Jill on Thanksgiving, the anniversary of their first encounter. The following day, Sal packed a bag, stole $200 from Greg’s wallet, and caught a bus to New York City.
He met Danny who was not yet drug addicted, six months alter. At the time, Danny was a freshman at Columbia. The course load challenged him more than he had anticipated. When a classmate suggested snorting cocaine occasionally for energy, Danny thought he had found a miracle solution to his problems. Within a month he became addicted. As the compulsion grew, he lost focus on the rest of his life. First he lost his job, then his friends, and finally his scholarship to Columbia. Sal remained at his side. Like Sage, a flawed childhood and emotionally deficient upbringing had instilled in him not the callousness of a serial killer, but a yearning to care for those around him.
Almost six months after his first hit of cocaine, Danny had lost everything except Sal. They lived together on streets of New York after Danny’s eviction from his apartment. Sal did his best to protect his helpless friend. Tales of Sage’s kind work helping New York’s homeless wove through the community, growing in grandeur. Sal once met a woman who claimed that Sage had personally opened countless shelters saving the lives of innumerable people. Sal easily identified the story’s great exaggerations, but some truth lay hidden in the outrageous assertion. Sage had, in fact, helped many people survive harsh winter nights by convincing them to stay in homeless shelters. This and other stories made Sal determined to find Sage. When they finally met, the thirty-year-old former flower child and seventeen-year-old victim of abuse made a remarkable team. They were soul mates. For nearly nine years, they worked together in perfect harmony.
After the first time I asserted myself in bringing them the box from 125th Street Bakery that morning, I joined them almost everyday. Handing out food to complete strangers boosted my self confidence astronomically. But the joy I found in helping others forced me to take a closer look at my life. Why did I think I needed the newest iPod and best TV? The apartment I lived in was far too big for one person. I involved myself in more and more humanitarian work to distract myself from the greed of the life I lead. Everyday we would get a box of food from George, distribute the goods to various people, and attempt to engage them in conversation. Regular customers would participate in friendly banter. Others would only accept our ‘charity’ in the most desperate of situations. The number of people who took so much pride in their self-sufficiency that they wouldn’t accept a friendly offering surprised my daily. It still surprises me sometimes. Sage told his story to the quiet types or listened intently to those who obviously had something to say. He made the most honorable efforts to meet everyone and make individual connections with each person.
I saw the results of theses personal connections first hand. Frosty November quickly passed as we entered freezing December. Sage encouraged us to work doubly hard during the winter. The homeless felt more inclined to enter shelters when the suggestion came from fellow homeless people as opposed to complete strangers who only helped in the spirit of Christmas. Even those who had previously declined our aid were grateful for a blanket and a place to stay the night. Some nights Sage stayed in my apartment. Others he roamed the city, trying to convince the freezing stragglers to stay inside for at least that night. On December 27th, the coldest day of the year, we spent the day making our strongest efforts to get as many people as possible off the streets. We invited our friendly acquaintances to stay in my apartment and helped others find empty beds in shelters. At 11:00 pm the temperature was 21oF. Nearly twenty people filled my apartment. After making sure everybody was comfortable, Sage went back out to the streets saying, “I couldn’t rest if I tried. Everyone stay here.” He and Sal looked directly at each other and shared a secret moment.
That was the last time any of us saw Sage, and I think he knew it would be. We assume he took a rest from his work, fell asleep in the freezing night, and didn’t wake up. He would’ve wanted to go that way, helping others until the very last moment. Sal, Jess, Danny, and I have agreed that we would also enjoy a similar fate. My lease is up, and I’m not going to renew it. I’m going to join my new family on the street so we can continue Sage’s work. Even Danny who has been high the entire time I’ve known him realizes the magnitude of Sage’s contributions. Today he will be completely sober for the first time in years. I came to New York to lose myself, and I did. No longer am I a girl who is scared and nervous in new situations. No longer am I a girl who is selfish and materialistic. I’m a new, more confident, more selfless me. In Sage I found a better me, and the same can be said for Sal, Jessica, and Danny. We thank you, Sage.