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Poor Samaritan

by Dorothy Day

Every morning at ten o’clock, as I stood at the kitchen sink and finished the breakfast dishes, I could hear him pecking up the street on his wooden leg. I lived in the basement of a remodelled corner house in the East Fifties. From the front windows on First Avenue I could almost see the East River—anyway, I could hear the boat whistles. The apartment ran the length of the house, so that the kitchen at the back and the small garden adjoining it were adjacent to the side street. I called that tiny patch of ground a garden, and so did the real-estate man who leased me the place, but it held little privacy. It was separated from the street only by a high railing, and passersby could almost tell what we were drinking on those afternoons when I entertained my friends out of doors.

He would stop outside the railing and call to me through the open kitchen door. The first time he appeared, I was about to refuse whatever appeal he might make, for I was continually pestered by tramps and I had grown hard. Then I saw the wooden leg. There was a piece of ham in the icebox, and I cut some bread, buttered it, and made him a sandwich. I handed it to him through the railing and gave him a glass of milk. He put down the small bundle of wood he was carrying and found a niche between my garden and the next house, where he sat down.

“My breakfast nook,” he said. He told me times were hard, a fact of which I was not entirely unaware myself. He had been a piano-maker, he said, but pianos weren’t what they used to be. “The radio, you know, lady.” I said I knew. He went on to tell me that he lived in a cellar on First Avenue and picked up a few cents every day selling wood. When he had finished his breakfast, I offered him a cigarette. He snatched at it so eagerly that I gave him the remainder of the pack and some matches.

These morning calls continued for weeks. I always gave my visitor a sandwich, and milk in the glass which I kept specially for him on the windowsill. One day he appeared pushing his bundle of wood in a baby carriage.

“It’s a great help, lady,” he said. “I found it in a dump heap.”

I made him an egg sandwich that morning, because I had dined out the night before and had no leftovers. It seemed to me that he took it with less relish than usual, and I supposed he didn’t like eggs.

Then he failed to appear for a few days, and I began to worry about him. Each morning I waited for the peck-peck of his wooden leg, and when at last I heard him tapping his way up the street, I ran out into the garden to greet him. There was some nice duck left from the previous night’s dinner, and while duck was not my idea of breakfast, I knew my friend must have less conventional notions about diet.

“Hello!” I called. “I’ve been looking out for you.”

He stopped reluctantly. “Thanks, lady,” he said, “but the people across the street are expecting me, I guess. They been feeding me lately. Thanks just the same.”

There was a smart private house across the street, and the people who lived there gave big dinner parties. Almost every evening I watched the arrival of fashionably dressed guests in limousines. They must have had very nice leftovers.

I never met my friend again. He went all around the block to avoid my house. I guess he didn’t want to hurt my feelings.


This story appeared in the April 18, 1936 issue of The New Yorker


Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 8, 1897. She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana and became interested in radical social causes as a way to help workers and the poor.  In 1916, she left the university and moved to New York City where she worked as a journalist on socialist newspapers, participated in protest movements, and developed friendships with many famous artists and writers. During this time, she also experienced failed love affairs, a marriage, a suicide attempt, and an abortion. She converted to trhe Catholic Church in 1926. While covering the 1932 Hunger March in Washington, D.C. for some Catholic magazines, she prayed that some way would open up for her to serve the poor and the unemployed.  The following day, back in New York, she met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former Christian Brother, who had a vision for a society constructed of Gospel values.  Together they founded the Catholic Worker newspaper which spawned a movement of houses of hospitality and farming communes that has been replicated throughout the United States and other countries. She died in New York City on November 29, 1980 among the poor.


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