The Best New York Sandwich

When I announced I was visiting New York for a month, a number of friends advocated for restaurants and culinary experiences I simply had to try. I heard things like, “They have the best pizza,” or “Nobody knows about this place, but their curries are to die for.” Ramen noodles, cheese cakes, and donuts.

Gay ice cream.

It’s not surprising.

I think we all want to own a little piece of this mysterious mega-city, to know a secret spot for cranberry muffins or crepes or the best street vendors. To know a ‘best’ food item is to know New York in a way that that others do not, which means somehow New York knows you love her, so she let you find the best pierogies outside Poland.

I’m no different.

I wanted to have my own unique New York experience, to discover and love this city in a way others do not normally see.

That’s why I panhandled on Wall Street this morning for several hours, permitting a cardboard sign at my side to ask for money.

I woke up at 6:00 in my studio apartment in Chelsea, my home for the month of May, and dressed like I often do:  camo pants, gray shirt, flannel jacket. Looking around the city for the past two weeks, I discovered I already dress pretty closely to homeless attire, so really, I didn’t have to alter my wardrobe. I haven’t shaved in a few days, so I’m all kinds of scruffy and this morning I resisted showering. My cardboard sign said, “Anything helps,” and I drew sad little dollar signs at the bottom, a suggestion for those who didn’t understand my words.

I hopped the Downtown 2 Train to Brooklyn and by 7:00 a.m. got off at Wall Street. I wanted to be ready for morning rush hour.

My first location wasn’t great, so after a half-hour I moved to be right *on* Wall Street, near the subway entrance, down the street from Tiffany & Co. Across the street, a majestic colossal giant with stout Greek columns and a tuxedo’d door man wearing a tall top hat. Every now and then the door man would catch my eye and sternly communicate, ‘Don’t come over here.’ And I would glare back, ‘I will if I feel like it.’

I had grabbed a Starbucks cup from the trash and wiped it dry. Placed it front of me with my sign and waited.

People walked by.

I contemplated the best way to conduct myself. I kept my hands out of my pocket, fingers interlaced in front of me. I figured that made me look harmless. Vulnerable.

I sat.

Nothing happened.

New Yorkers on their way to work, clipped by. Cell phone chatter. People with coffee. Nobody really looked down at me. I noticed every cigarette butt in a 30 foot radius, every gum stain now a black circular tattoo on the city sidewalk.

I watched a clutch of moms bundle their kids into a school bus. I didn’t realize that – that New York kids got bussed to school. Huh. Interesting. I watched with curiosity and realized one of the mothers was deliberately keeping her back to me, standing between me and her kids, because, oh right. I was a panhandler.

When the first guy dropped money in my cup, I was stunned. I had forgotten why I was here.

He gave me $2.50 in quarters. He also gave me this big grin, as if he was delighted to see me. Then, he darted to the curb and into a cab. Almost immediately after that, an older man with silver hair dropped a dollar in my cup. He smiled big, too.

I hadn’t expected the smiling. I don’t know why.

A young guy, construction worker, whom I heard speaking in Spanish on his phone a moment earlier, dropped a dollar in my cup and showered me with this dazzling, unrestrained smile. It was a second date smile, the kind you get from someone who is happy to see you again and they want you to know it. I don’t know why I was shocked but I was. He moved four feet away and started a new phone conversation. He was in no hurry to get away from me.

A brown-haired woman veered off her linear path to pass me a dollar. She handed it to me seriously and turned to walk away. She was the first who didn’t smile. I wondered about her life and the kindness obviously in her that made her step my way. As she crossed the street, she looked over her shoulder at me and smiled big. She waved, as if leaving a friend after a coffee date.

A black woman in her 40’s gave me money and said, “God bless.” A Korean man in a pink shirt and white knit vest handed me a dollar and smiled shyly. He bolted away – it was obvious he was late for something – but he made time to stop for me. A woman with the most complicated bun and hair three different shades gave me money and murmured something like, “Mmmhmm,” before disappearing into the flow.

Black people. White people. Older. Young people. Casual dress. Suits. Everyone who contributed looked at me, looked me in the eye for a brief second.

A handsome young buck, sporting a burgundy shirt and silk tie handed me a dollar. He wore reflective sunglasses and like many others, had ear buds embedded in his skull. His hair was freshly shorn, stylish, very Abercrombie & Fitch. For some reason I thought I would see a smirk or a wrinkled judgment cross his face as he handed me the dollar. Something like, ‘Jesus, what happened to you, man?’


His mouth was terse, like he understood the seriousness of my situation and he nodded at me. Respectfully. And then he was lost in the crowd.

Mostly everyone ignored me, walking by on their way to busy lives. I didn’t resent them. I’d walk right by me, too. I wondered about them and if they had given money on the previous block or the previous day, the way some people were generous with me today.

I took the subway to Times Square for a different audience and experienced the same kindnesses, people who looked me in the eye for a moment. Smiled. Nodded. A woman gave me two crumpled dollars and boarded her bus. An older man, possibly Japanese, stopped and pulled out his wallet. He made time.

A twelve-year-old kid raced up close to me, dropped in a dollar, and darted away, like a sparrow. I think he was a tourist and asked his parents permission to do this act of kindness. A toddler waddled by and seeing me at her eye-level, she burst into giggles. I waved and she screeched with delight, looking back as she and her mom moved toward the theaters.

A guy with frazzled hair, donning ear buds and smoking a dangling cigarette, approached and put $2 in my cup and stared into my eyes. Without words he somehow communicated, ‘I understand.’ I tried to fathom what he meant by that look, what he had gone through, his life experiences, but the only thing I got was him letting me know, ‘I understand.’

I cried when he walked away because he was so earnest and genuinely worried about me.

Best of all, I had the most amazing food today.

While at my Wall Street location, an Asian-American woman handed me an aluminum foil-wrapped square. After I watched her walk away, I noticed she was carrying a brown bag for her lunch. I unwrapped the tin foil to find her homemade sandwich.

She made it with processed cheese, the kind that remains imprinted with its individual plastic wrap. The meat was a thinly-sliced, cheap hybrid of ham and pastrami, rather difficult to name. Wheat bread. Mayonnaise. It wasn’t fully cut in half as the bottom piece of bread was barely perforated. A half-assed job done by someone in a hurry. I know. I’ve made sandwiches like that.

Obviously, she had made it for herself, but when she encountered someone who she thought needed it more, she did not hesitate. She gifted it to me and disappeared into the crowd of busy professionals.

I gave away all the money I collected to my fellow panhandlers, those who truly needed it. I made sure to look them in the eye and smile big. I now know how much that matters.

But I ate her sandwich.

Swear to God, it was the best homemade sandwich you will ever find in New York.

I consumed it slowly while sitting on a bench before the impressive Wall Street Exchange, reflecting on my own reasons to love this big city.


34 Responses to “The Best New York Sandwich”

  1. Cindy Foster Says:

    Darn you, Edmond…..you made me cry again. Every time I come to your blog I think “maybe I will not cry this time.” But most of the time, you get me. This is so sweet and sincere. I love your ability to really see people. Not only did they look at you, but you saw deep into them. I am SO glad to hear that you were met with many kindnesses. I always give to homeless people if I have something, but I have been teased and downright put down for doing so. I have been told so many times that they will just use the money for drugs or alcohol. I don’t care what they use it for. It’s about the giving, not the spending. And it’s DEFINITELY about the eye contact exchange that happens. I hope they see into my heart the way that you saw into others’ today. The sandwich is the ultimate gift. I just love it. Thank you for sharing your experience today. xxoo

  2. Edmond Says:

    Cindy, sorry to make you cry…um…again. But to be fair, the only reason you’re crying is because you’re so big-hearted and full of love. That ain’t my fault, woman. That’s you. And thank you for being such a lovely, friend. I feel richer for knowing you.

  3. Tim Says:

    A NY coworker (I was there for about a year five years ago) observed…

    “Look, there are eight and a half million people in New York. And in the morning, it’ll feel like you’ve passed every single one of them on the way to work. I’ve noticed you look people in the eye, and nod or say hi to everyone. But you’ll stop. Not because you’ll be less friendly, but because it’s just not possible to say hello to 8.5 million people a day. And it’s the same for them. They’ve all, we’ve all, built these little bubbles around us for practical reasons. But there are really nice people in all those bubbles. And they love their city. And they’re helpful. So, if you poke into their bubble gently, they’ll be happy to talk with you and help you. Just don’t think of their silence as more than what it is.”

    With that advice, I went out to a city filled with nice people, a few real jerks, and some truly disturbed unfortunates. I was impressed over and over by the kindness of people who looked too busy to stop and assist someone – but who gave directions to tourists, helped carry grocery bags up flights of stairs, held doors open, joked around with each other, shared taxis when they realized they were going the same direction. I was offered drinks at someone’s apartment after a chat on a subway, the chance to play pool with a lady who lived a few blocks away (she’d offered to share a cab after a circus performance), and the couch at my dry cleaners for any future visits to NYC.

    But that took me 14 months – and you learned all that in a morning. Bravo.

  4. Tim Says:

    Okay, one more observation.

    With a city that has that many people, I suspect that:

    * one guy in an expensive suit heading to work on Wall Street was once homeless himself
    * one dad has a kid with a drug problem who’s living on the street
    * one woman lost her job recently, had to sleep on someone’s couch or floor for a bit before getting back on their feet and remembers clearly how that felt
    * one person decided years ago that giving to the homeless was the best way they could positively impact the world
    * one young woman has a cousin who looks just like you and seeing you there reminded her to be nice and to check in with her family
    * and there are as many different reasons someone stopped briefly to give you (and thousands of others) a little spare change this morning as there are cardboard signs with pleas for help.

    I’m glad this was such a positive experience for you.

  5. Edmond Says:

    Tim, these are fantastic observations! I love it. I love your bulleted list of all the reasons people feel concern – the list of ‘been there/felt that’ is longer than anyone suspects.

    It *was* a positive experience…mostly. I did end up feeling shitty toward the end because people were expressing generosity and kindness toward someone who truly was just ‘playing homeless.’ The guy who looked into my eyes with ‘I understand’ really got to me. I felt like an asshole for my deception and so I won’t do this again. I will pay their love forward, however.

  6. Perry Says:

    Crying on the bus. It was the sandwich that got me. Plus the beauty of my friend’s curious heart.

  7. Edmond Says:

    Perry, all my love to you, my brother.

  8. Skai Says:

    Wow. What a great description of your day & the *feeling* of that experience. Thank you for letting me busk with you on the streets of New York! A real gift. :)

  9. Edmond Says:

    Skai, I love that we still know about each others’ lives beyond our SF working days. Thank you for dropping by.

  10. Anne Tenino Says:

    Maybe the money is payment for the right to smile? I know if I don’t give people on the street money, I feel as if it’s rude (as in misleading) to make any eye contact at all.

    On another note, glaring at the doorman? People asking for money (past their teen years) tend to be far more beaten down than that, IMO.

  11. Anne Tenino Says:

    I hate it when you make me cry in public.

  12. Edmond Says:

    Awww….Schmooopy. I’m sorry you cried in public. If it’s any consolation, my friend Perry read this and cried on the bus. So, you’re not alone.

  13. Phoenix Emrys Says:

    In all seriousness, I’ve often fantasized about doing exactly what you did, wondering what it would be like to be on the other side of that outstretched hand I was putting some change in. Now I don’t have to.

    Well done.

  14. Edmond Says:

    Thank you, Phoenix. I’ve always wondered about this, too.

  15. Joel Says:

    My dear friend, as always you moved me. It’s a shame that we have to qualify walking in the shoes of our fellow homeless souls as an “adventure” and that empathy has to be experiential – as in Spurgeon’s old adage, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. But, man, do I applaud your “adventurist” spirit. I loved so many moments in this: the darting sparrow imagery of the 12 year old boy; the irony of squeezing compassion from the seemingly soulless on Wall Street; the “second date” glance back; the surprise that you re-gifted your proceeds to your “fellow panhandlers” (Bukowski, who famously said “Some people never go crazy, What truly horrible lives they must live” would have consumed the proceeds at a posh bistro in Tribeca for the hell of it or blown it shooting craps), and of course the sandwich … love the line – “A half-assed job done by someone in a hurry. I know. I’ve made sandwiches like that.” As a frequent wanderer on Wall Street (my company’s office is a block around the corner; every two hours I am at work there I take a smoke break under the grand columns of the Moneychangers’ Temple), I am surprised – and somehow spiritually cleansed – that you found compassion in that too-fortified corner of the city. I have never seen panhandlers there: perhaps, I never LOOKED to see them :( … My colleagues from NY, when they’re in Chicago, comment on the many, many more panhandlers we have in the Loop compared to Manhattan (with the exception of Times Square) and it is very noticeable to me when I’m there – the absence of them. Again, perhaps I do not see. Thank you, my friend, for an uplifting read. I would envy your spirit, if it weren’t sacrilegious to do so.

  16. Edmond Says:

    My lovely, lovely, Joel. Baby, my spirit ain’t nothing to be jealous of. You have such grace and power in your paintings, such love and joy (and sorrow), that clearly the Sparkling Spirit is thrilled to work hand-in-hand with you. Thank you for your lovely insights. You’re one of the people who taught me that you could work in business and keep your soul. You inspire me.

  17. Nancy Says:

    Hi Edmond – I’m a friend of Mike Toppe’s. He shared your link and I just wanted to tell you how moving this post was. But, more importantly, how much courage I think it must’ve taken to really put yourself in this experience and to really see it. I cried. Just beautiful.

  18. Edmond Says:

    Nancy, how lovely of you to comment. Thank you. Honestly, I don’t think it was much courage…but I will accept your lovely words. On the way home, I passed a homeless guy who seemed younger than me and I thought about how awful and hard it would be to do this day after day, seeing no relief in sight. This is just how you ‘spend your days.’ And if your cup isn’t in front of you, you aren’t earning. I did this to see another side of New York. But I knew I had a bed to sleep in that night, and a meal waiting for me if I wanted it. I was a visitor to a world that requires bravery at levels I barely comprehend.

  19. Alesia Says:

    Great post Edmond! And you don’t think you are adventurous! How funny! I love the image of you making the toddler giggle. Very sweet. I’m pretty jaded toward panhandlers after 20 years of living in a big city, but your experience has made me want to rethink my approach to folks I encounter on the street asking for money. Thank you!

  20. Edmond Says:

    Alesia, I don’t know how you could not get jaded, day after day. And yet you’re going to try again to open your heart? See, this is why you’re awesome.

  21. Kaje Harper Says:

    You always paint such vivid pictures, and make me smile and choke up a bit in the same post. I want that next book, because you put that same intensity and humor and vision into King Perry, and I could use another hit of it. New York is lucky to have you around for a while – thanks for sharing your experiences of it with us this way.

  22. Edmond Says:

    Kaje, I’m always so touched you read the things I write. Thank you. More on the second book in the series coming VERY soon.

  23. Michele Speck Says:

    There really isn’t anything I can say that others haven’t already expressed. Yet I simply feel compelled to comment on this beautiful post. Like everyone else, I am so moved by your humilty, compassion, insightfulness, and your innate ability to make me “feel” what you felt though the words you put down on a page. I love living vicariously through you and your experiences. In fact, even though we really don’t know each other very well, this may seem like such a weird thing to say but “I just love you, Edmond Manning. You are one special human being!” Thanks for brightening my day – again!

  24. Edmond Says:

    Awwwww! I just love you, too, Michele. We have touched each others’ lives, haven’t we?

  25. Leslie Roxworthy Says:

    Really, really well done. Would you please publish a collection of your observations and experiences?

  26. Edmond Says:

    Leslie, it’s weird you would say that. My friend Ann has been pushing me to do that for three years and I keep thinking, ‘nobody wants to see that.’ Ann convinced me to think it over more, and your saying something makes me think, ‘hmmmmm.’ So, thanks.

  27. Tony Says:

    King E! Your courage has always and continues to amaze me. What a blessing!!

  28. What book are you reading? - Literature, authors, children's books, biographies, bestsellers... - Page 933 - City-Data Forum Says:

    [...] I'm reading King Perry by Edmond Manning, who is someone I know from Facebook. The book is completely not my type of thing, but he's a FANTASTIC writer and is funny as hell. (No, the book isn't funny — HE'S funny.) This is something that he wrote that just made me swoon. He has such graceful writing skills, I'm in awe. The Best New York Sandwich | Edmond Manning [...]

  29. Dawn Says:

    I saw this story of yours linked on Tim’s Facebook page in mid-May. It made me weepy; it gave me goosebumps.

    I linked to it on my own Facebook page. I have a lot of friends who live in NYC and, as bad-ass as they can be, I wanted to show them that we all know it’s a facade. :)

    Over the last few weeks, I’ve come back to read it a few times. I think that it resonates because I genuinely like people — I like to know what makes them tick. I like to give a stranger, who is clearly in a lousy mood, a compliment just to (possibly) turn their day around. I like to think that we, as people, all have more good in them than bad.

    So, yeah, I’ve read this a number of times over the last couple of weeks… and today I bought your book. I’m looking forward to a great read.

    Thank you for being such a careful and graceful writer.

  30. Dawn Says:


    King Perry. It’s completely not my type of story. Not at all something that I’d ever read. I don’t *do* fantasy. I read memoirs and I read novels with stories that really could have happened in real life. But I bought King Perry anyway. And I started reading it. It’s FANTASTIC! I’m 50 pages in and I don’t want to put it down but I don’t want it to ever end.

  31. Edmond Says:

    Dawn, what a lovely, lovely comment from you. Thank you for visiting my website and reading about my New York Sammich. It was quite a day – it changed me. Thank you for loving the day the way I do. Please let me know what you think of King Perry. I’m eager to hear your reaction. Edmond

  32. Macky Says:

    Thank goodness its not just me who cries at everything you write. I thought you were perhaps a mischievous Dolphin sticker loving pixie or something like that planted on earth to deliberately keep my eyes in a permanent state of wetness. … Admit it Mr Manning you are Kinging and Queening us all in your own word loving way, your middle name wouldn’t begin with a V would it! ;D I think I’m becoming the Queen of topsy turvy emotion after reading King Perry and discovering this site!

  33. Edmond Says:

    Hmmmmmm. No comment. But my middle name doesn’t start with ‘V.’ I’m glad you enjoyed the sammich!

  34. Jules Lovestoread Bowersox Says:

    Love this. I love the things you learned and observed about people. What a cool experience. And, I bet that simple sandwich did kick ass.

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