The Blackberry buzzed on my bedside table at 6:43 a.m. It was our radio news desk asking if I had the home number for the cop who'd bought shoes for the homeless man on a freezing New York City night last month. When I texted back, "Why?" the answer came: "There's a follow in the Times that the homeless guy is no longer wearing the boots." The editors wanted the cop's reaction. Why? I wanted to ask again. Why do we want to know? Would the world be better informed if we had woken the 25-year-old officer at his parents' home with this news flash? Should we ask him if he was disappointed, did he feel silly? Was his money wasted? Sometimes it's possible that we miss the point of what our stories are really about.
What we learned from Monday's New York Times is that the homeless man had a name. Jeffrey Hillman is 54 years old and a veteran of the United States Army. He has two grown children. When asked where the boots had gone, he told the paper, "Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money."
People who knew I had covered the story stopped me to ask, "Do you think he sold the boots? Did he use the money to score another hit?" The odd part there is that people had asked me that last week, before we even knew this man's name.
This might be a good time to ask other questions about why this story captured our imaginations last week, as well as why it stirs some cynicism this week. First, what was the story about? Was it a news story about the cop who spent his own money to buy the best boots in the store because he heard people laughing at the homeless man with the bare and blistered feet? Yes, partly, but not altogether.
The story was about people and their hunger for basic human kindness. Remember the genesis of the story: Jennifer Foster, a tourist from Arizona, saw the scene unfold in Times Square. Foster, a civilian who works in the communication divisions of the sheriff's office back home, snapped a picture of the scene with her phone. Not knowing what to do with the photo, she emailed it to the NYPD with a narrative of what she had seen. The NYPD put it on their Facebook page with the email Foster had written.
The picture and Foster's email began to get thousands of views and "likes" and "shares" and that attracted the attention of the New York Times. The Times' first story was as much about the photo as an Internet phenomenon as it was about Officer Larry DePrimo's act of kindness. That was perhaps the more interesting wrinkle to the story. As we in the press tend to feed the public a steady diet of Benghazi and Petraeus, this story took off on its own without the help of the media; a single photo on the Internet that captured a random act of kindness began to spread quickly because people found the story satisfying.
Why was that? It may be because Officer DePrimo did this on his own without telling anyone. He said he never saw Foster take the photo. Nor did he take Jeffery Hillman's name so he could write up his good deed in his activity report. Even when the NYPD posted the photo on their Facebook page, the identities of the officer and the homeless man were unknown. The very beauty of the act was that it came without expectations. DePrimo did not expect to receive credit or end up on television. Jeffrey Hillman never expected that his use of the boots beyond that cold night would be tracked or critiqued. Nor did he probably imagine that as one of New York's anonymous lost souls, he would be in an unwelcomed spotlight. Nor is it likely his two children, now in their 20s, appreciated seeing their names, along with a photo of their homeless father, splashed across the newspapers and the Internet.
Anthropologists say, "What you study, you change." They mean that even in the deepest corner of the rain forest, the very presence of the researcher and the gear will cause the subject, be they human or animal, to behave differently. In the media we might say, what we study we change and what we study closely, we crush. If there is value to studying Officer DePrimo, we may have gotten its worth already. He did a good thing without ever needing or even wanting to be recognized for it. Deprimo makes, without overtime , about $600 a week. The richest people in New York tend to insist their names be plastered across every donation. DePrimo's act was pure, which is why so many people loved it.
For Mr. Hillman's part, we might ask why an Army veteran and the father of two wanders the streets in the cold. One might argue that his personal, private story, and whatever physical or emotional problems he has faced are really none of our business. In the holiday season, a more useful discussion might be about the fact that the New York has the highest levels of homelessness since the Great Depression.
This in a city enjoying a renaissance. Crime numbers are at lows not seen since the 1960s and construction projects soar skyward across Manhattan. In August, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, there was an all-time record of 46,600 homeless people, including 11,200 families with 19,200 children, in city shelters. These figures don't account for many homeless men and women who never go to a shelter. Every study has shown that the majority of the homeless who prowl the streets, shunning the shelters, suffer from mental illness or severe health problems.
There is an old saw among reporters who have been disappointed by digging beneath the surface of a story that began with just a headline: The worst thing you can do to a good story is check it out. In this case, when we "check it out" we need to be mindful of what it is we are really seeking. Is it just in our nature as the press, that the simple, happy ending was not enough? Is that why we wanted to wake Officer DePrimo this morning, to tell him "Hey, the whole story went to hell. How do you feel?" And what of Mr. Hillman? Are we disappointed that he didn't turn out to be the kind-hearted beggar whose life was turned around by a new pair of boots? Or worse, did we secretly like him better because he played more to our other stereotype? The kind of homeless person who can't be trusted with our generosity?
The deeper we dig, the greater the danger we face of missing the point. The best part of the story was that it combined the strange bedfellows of generosity and anonymity. Among the participants, there were no expectations. Now we have introduced our own, uninvited. Before we blame Officer Deprimo for his rare idealism or Mr. Hillman for disappointing us, we need to ask the kind of question that 25-year-old cop named Joe DePrimo was raised to ask. One might be whether there isn't another way we can help Jeffrey Hillman and the tens of thousands like him. If it truly is the season of giving, we need to remind ourselves that the story of the boots in Times Square was not about our expectations of others but instead our individual capacity for goodness.