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LaRuffa the contractor, who is a great pal of mine, and I were strolling down Second Avenue toward Maguire's saloon when we encountered the bums.

"They're great," LaRuffa said, "sometimes they're sparring. They're 80 years old and they're sparring."

I don't know whether these guys were really 80 but one had a long white beard and the other a gray head and beard. LaRuffa gave the white-bearded one, who seems to be the leader, five bucks. "Here, get yourself a drink."

"Go bleep yourself," said the bum, "I'll get what I want."

"They're wonderful," LaRuffa said, marveling. Sometimes he parks his car nearby and he always asks the two bums to watch it and he gives them five. Last fall he bought a new raincoat and he had the old one still with him in the car and he thought, well, they could use a coat. So he gave the first bum the coat.

"Go bleep yourself. What do I want with a lousy coat?" But the other one took it. "Looks nice," he said, admiring himself in the reflection of a shop window. A couple of weeks ago LaRuffa encountered them again. "Where's the raincoat?" he inquired.

"It was a crap coat and you can go bleep yourself," said the white-bearded gent amiably.

These two are among the thousands of homeless people who live on the streets of Manhattan. and there are men like them, and women too, I guess, in every great city. I don't have to tell you this has been a fierce winter in the East and these two guys, and plenty like them, have spent it outdoors, living on the sidewalk. The two bums LaRuffa favors sleep in cardboard boxes on the east side of Second Ave. at 43rd St. During the day they wander about a bit. The white-bearded one uses a stick to help him walk and sometimes he stands in the gutter alternately panhandling passing motorists or threatening them with his stick.

I was alone coming home late from Maguire's, which is right across the corner from the Daily News building, where Ad Age has a floor, and LaRuffa's bums were huddled in a doorway on the west side of the Avenue, up toward the Palm, and there was an EMS ambulance there. So I stopped to see if they were OK. Two young EMS medics were talking to them. Obviously they knew them pretty well.

"Look, it's going to be real cold tonight," one of these young men was saying pleasantly, "and we can take you down to Bellevue now. They ain't gonna keep you. Just for the night. You can sleep warm."

"Go bleep yourself and Bellevue, too," he was notified by the bum with the white beard.

The two medics laughed and one said, "OK, guys, but we ain't coming by again tonight. This is our last sweep."

"Sure, sure," the other bum said, and white beard said something less cordial. And the two EMS men told them good night and good luck, the way Ed Murrow used to end his broadcasts, and they drove off to find other homeless people they might take in to shelter overnight down there at Bellevue Hospital where they can handle a couple hundred people a night.

The social workers and the experts tell you the problem of the homeless isn't just that we don't have enough houses or apartments. Part of it, maybe a lot, is that some of these people aren't really dealing full hands. LaRuffa's bums, for example, are drunks. You see them there knocking back the cheap stuff out of a bottle and then sleeping it off. Night after cold night they sleep out and yet they're still alive in the morning.

And what do we do for them? What can we do for them? We hit them a buck or, if we are generous people of heart like LaRuffa the contractor, we give them a coat and hit them five. There are safety nets in society and these are people who've fallen through. And pious folk wring their hands and murmur and tut-tut because someone gives them a few bucks and they can afford a bottle.

What the hell do these guys have? No one's sending them to Club Med.

My own feelings about the bums are pretty complicated. I had an old man who drank. So that's part of it. Then I see guys half my age panhandling and sleeping on grates and they're not only young but they look OK and I pass them by. The small measure of charity I possess is spent with the old and the crippled and the rummies. Probably this is all wrong. But I am often wrong. So that's OK, too.

When I was growing up in Sheepshead Bay we had bums, too. That was the Depression. That wasn't a housing shortage; that was a shortage of damned well everything. People feeling sorry for themselves today don't know what that was like. It was called "hard times," and it was, it surely was. There was no welfare except something called home relief. I don't know how that worked. But it couldn't have been much. There were no food stamps.

The bums I knew growing up lived behind an outdoor board in a lot next to the shops. They sat there chatting all day, sharing a butt, passing around a bottle or a beer. People tossed them a nickel. That was the standard of charity in the Depression; no one was handing out paper money. One of the bums was the father of a couple of nice kids I knew at grammar school, at St. Mark's. A boy and his sister. Sweet kids, and every day they had to pass that corner lot at Sheepshead Bay Road and the board where their old man lived. You had to pass it to get to the grocer and the barbershop and the hardware store.

I remember as if it were yesterday how I felt about those two youngsters knowing where their father lived and I wondered if they lay awake nights when it was cold or the rain was coming down heavy, thinking about him. He was a bum, sure, but he was their dad. He was pop. He was, well, you know what I mean.

I used to worry maybe my own father might end up like that. He didn't. But he could have. So could any of us. Like LaRuffa's guy, standing there in the cold, sparring with his pal and cursing, telling us all where to go and what to do.

"He's a mean old bastard," says LaRuffa, as he hits him a five. And another cold night closes in.

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