Had a cop been photographed callously walking by an ostensibly homeless man who sat barefoot on one of the coldest nights of the year, it likely would have generated as much media attention as what actually happened: Officer Larry DePrimo stopped and bought the man a pair of boots and socks.
So in some sense, the question is more how could he not act than why did he act? But if you listen to Officer DePrimo talk about the incident, as he has now in numerous interviews, it’s clear he’s one of the good guys who bring a passion for helping to The Job. What moved me most was when he described the man’s condition as “unacceptable.”
I believe one reason DePrimo’s act of generosity has become viral and swept Thursday and Friday’s news cycle is because what he really accomplished was challenging the orthodoxy of our consciousness by going beyond minimal obligation.
Misery is everywhere in these troubled times, particularly in the Times Square area. There are wounded and jobless veterans, maimed and disabled people, the pregnant, the far-from-home, all of them homeless and competing for alms and telling their tale on cardboard along the stretch of Seventh Avenue leading to Penn Station, traveled by hundreds of thousands of people daily. (Also competing are the smug, fully abled “I want weed” and “buy me a beer” creeps feeling worthy of a handout.)
As a society we are conditioned that handing out spare change is acceptable, but we’re reluctant to reach out to a person who clearly needs more than money, like the still unidentified man who, for some unknown reason, ended up barefoot in Times Square. Part of that reluctance is concern that such people may be dangerous or unstable, It’s the advice of officials, from the police to the Transit Authority, to give to established charities that help the needy rather than encourage panhandling. I’m not going to lie: I’m not sure what I would have done in the same situation.
But Officer DePrimo, to his great credit, not only didn’t pass by but wouldn’t have been satisfied simply having the barefoot man taken to a shelter where someone else could help. He took the extra step of shelling out his own money, about $75, at Skechers to help the stranger. It reminded me of my father, also a law enforcement officer in his career and coincidentally also named Larry, who once was once approached at a subway station, because of his kippa, by some Chabad people who asked him to help an Iranian-born kid get to Crown Heights. My father went beyond that mission by buying the kid lunch, offering to buy him better shoes than the worn sandals he had on and offering a place to stay in our home if he ever needed it.
So hopefully, Officer DePrimo has accomplished more than just helping keep a man’s feet warm, but challenged all of us to go beyond the minimum — giving out spare change, supporting social programs or writing a check to charities — to take a chance on helping another human being to the fullest extent possible.
UPDATE: This weekend the shoeless man was identified as Jeffrey Hillman, 54, a veteran who is back on the streets panhandling and once again shoeless. He told the New York Times he had hidden the expensive shoes because he was afraid they will be stolen. Sadly, it looks like Hillman will be offering many other New Yorkers opportunities to do kind things for him in the foreseeable future.