It reminds me of something right out of Dickens, or maybe even more appropriately O. Henry, where a selfless gift is seen not just as an act of kindness but a microcosm of all that is good in us. Anne Frank once famously wrote that despite all that happened “I believe that people are really good at heart.” As if meant to confirm this, here in New York City we have a young cop buying boots for a homeless man, getting caught on a tourist’s camera doing so, and becoming something of a celebrity.
This is probably an even greater story for New Yorkers coming in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and right at the start of the holiday season. People like to think New Yorkers are tough and uncaring, but we really all want to rise above that reputation established by the media, movies, and TV. New Yorkers do show they care all the time, and in those desperate moments like 9/11 and the hurricane, the best of the city always shines brightly as neighbors help neighbors and strangers too.
We can only wonder what Police Officer Larry DePrimo thought when he first saw 54-year-old Jeffery Hillman sitting barefoot in the cold. He could have shrugged it off as just another homeless guy on the beat and walked away; he could have also given the man a hard time or forced him to go to a shelter. With the cold night approaching, frostbite and even death were distinct possibilities.
The story gets to us as we hear that the cop asked the man if he had anything for his feet. Hillman told him that he did not and, in fact, that he never had a pair of shoes. Hillman started walking away, but DePrimo did not give up on him. He followed the man and went into a nearby Skechers store and bought the pair of $100 boots, with the store manager giving him an employee discount to cut the price in half.
DePrimo went outside, gave the man the boots, and then Arizona tourist Jennifer Foster took the picture that everyone is talking about. It seems a certainty that DePrimo did this selflessly and expected no fanfare, but now he has gone on the Today show and CNN to talk about his actions. Even tourist Foster made it clear that what the cop did was “an act of human kindness and he had absolutely no intention of receiving any credit for it.”
Of course, there are always naysayers. I heard people complaining on talk radio here in New York that the cop should have been doing his job instead of buying a guy shoes. Another questioned the impropriety of getting the employee discount, and still others felt he knew that the woman was there with her phone ready to snap the picture.
Not to let it end there, other reports came out about Hillman suggesting that he was a petty criminal and a scam artist. He had been arrested many times for drug possession and other things. It was also said that the man frequently walked around barefoot to get money from sympathetic passersby and tourists.
This negativity seems just an attempt to ruin a perfectly good story about a good guy doing the right thing, but we New Yorkers are not letting these Grinches and Scrooges get to us. We know Larry DePrimo did this for all the right reasons, and he should get a commendation or whatever else the NYPD can do to recognize this fine fellow.
As for Mr. Hillman, I heard on the radio tonight that he has two siblings who were shocked to see his picture in the newspaper. His younger brother told a reporter that he hopes that Jeffery will come home for Christmas. For this story to have a really happy ending, we have to hope that Mr. Hillman will go back to his family. At least we know that he will be wearing a nice pair of boots if he does. Ah, yes, wouldn’t that be the O. Henry ending and then some.