“This is everything.” That’s the first thing I heard her say, as I passed the couple near the corner of 14th Street and Avenue A in Manhattan. “It’s all of it. Everything.” She was crying, in the strained, frustrated way small children sometimes cry when they feel helpless.

She had long straight sandy blonde hair; he had dark hair, a wispy beard, and a few tattoos. They were in their late twenties or early thirties and newly homeless. Their belongings–the everything  she was talking about–were neatly arrayed on a couple of blankets, under some scaffolding. It was a lot of stuff, much more than anybody could manage while living on the streets for more than a couple of days.

Of course, what do I know? I find it really hard to imagine what it would take to live on the streets–physically, psychologically, emotionally. What does it require of a person to sleep on a sidewalk on a hot, stinky August day in New York?

I finished my errand and walked past the couple again. I thought about crossing the street to avoid the scene and then decided against it. Was it more callous to avoid their public pain or intrude on it? I have no idea. But I intruded. “You lied,” the woman cried. “You lied to me.” The man was pacing. He opened his mouth a few times, like he was about to say something. But he didn’t. He stopped pacing and then started again. “You said you were going to be able to take care of us when we got to New York. You lied.” She was folding items and putting them in suitcases. It reminded me of times when my mom fought with my stepdad when I was a kid. She’d pack stuff up to show that she wasn’t going to stick around for abuse or neglect.

But this woman was packing up her temporary shelter on the street. To go where? How? And do what? It was pretty clear she had no idea. I don’t know how the story evolved. I kept walking. I wondered if there was something I could or should do. I had no idea. I still have no idea.

The episode took place a couple of days ago, and I’ve spent a lot of time rehearsing images from it since then: the sound of tears in the woman’s voice, the neatness of her belongings as she stacked them, the extreme tan of the man’s skin, imagining where they’d come from and why they’d choose this difficult city to escape that place. Most of us keep our domestic pain close–and private. You can’t do that when you live on the street. Publicizing pain is one of the many violations of the homeless, one of the many reasons they make those of us with places to live uncomfortable.

What is discomfort? For me, right now, it takes the form of mental images. Images of sound and sight and feeling. The images induce some physical sensations: a buzzing in the skin, tightness in the belly, slight nausea. The sensations prime my body for a thought: “You are helpless in this situation.” The thought initiates a replay of the images. And so on.

Analyzing my looping discomfort does nothing to help these people. I have no idea how they got to that corner, under that scaffolding. I have no idea where they are now. Maybe they were wronged in some way. Maybe they had some terrible luck. Maybe they made some terrible decisions. I don’t know what forms of social service might or might not be available to them. I don’t even know what it is about me that made me vulnerable–or porous–to their experiences. Why did what I witnessed stick with me? Why am I rehearsing these images? Feeling my own, insulated version of helplessness in response?

Like most New Yorkers, I assume that I’d cause more trouble if I’d tried to get involved. What would I do? Interview these people about their experience? Do some research about services available to them? Now that I ask myself these questions, it seems to me that it’s possible that if I’d been braver, I might have tried. But I cringe at the possible outcomes. Maybe they’d get violent. Maybe they’d just be embarrassed. Maybe I’d learn there’s nothing to be done. Maybe I’d learn that these are people whose problems or personalities are abhorrent to me. Maybe they’d remind of my mom. Or maybe they are people I could relate to, have conversations with. I’ll never know.

We are mostly helpless as we maneuver streets full of suffering, on nearly every block, at least in my neighborhood. Their suffering and our concerns for our own safety meet, commingle, affect us both. Most of the time, we compartmentalize images of these people’s lives. But those compartments inhabit us. They seep into our identities, even if we’ll never know how–or to what effect.

“This is everything. All of it.” The image reminds of when my mom would throw all her boyfriend’s belongs onto the driveway. But he could retrieve them, or more likely, she’d do it for him.