Frank was standing in the street on East 10th and Broadway when he asked me if I could spare any change. He was an older man—he’d later tell me 60, but I would have guessed older, living outside will do that, I guess. He was wearing jeans and trainers, a light blue hoodie, a baseball cap. He had a gold hoop in his left ear and a cane. I asked him what was going on, a lame opening line, but I wasn’t sure how else to proceed. He told me he hated asking for money, but it’d been a hard year, he’d just gotten out of the hospital, he’d been depressed. We were still standing in the street. I asked him if I could buy him a sandwich and talk about his life, I wrote on the internet about people’s lives, and I’d like to talk to him about his. He seemed incredulous that he’d have anything to share—”What do you want to know? I was born in the Bronx and my dad was in jail”—but I assured him I was just interested in his life, his day, how he ended up asking me for money on on East 10th and Broadway. He said okay and we walked for a little bit.
About a block away there was a Subway, and he asked if that was okay, he didn’t want me to spend too much money on him. We went inside, I encouraged him to get a large sandwich so he could have some later—he was very concerned about me spending so much money on him, and I was very concerned with assuring him that I wanted to do it and it was fine while also leaving room for me to say no if he asked me for more money later. He got turkey and swiss on flatbread, with a few tomatoes, black olives, the peppers that aren’t the hot peppers. He was thankful in a way that made me feel embarrassed. We sat down and I asked him about his life.
Logan: You mentioned you’d been in the hospital. What happened?
Frank: Yeah, I got out of the hospital nine months ago, I had fallen on the subway tracks. It was the day after Christmas. I was exhausted, I’d been sleeping outside for awhile then. Two days before, my good friend—my girlfriend died. She was sleeping outside and she died. I had to tell her family. So I went to the subway to sleep and I had been given an Ambien, and I woke up on the tracks, my back, hip, and leg broken. A guy in the station said I’d gotten up from the bench and just walked over the edge, sleep walking. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Two guys came down and got me off the tracks, I was in incredible pain, just screaming. They took me to La Guardia Hospital, this was in Queens, where they held me for a week. Then they transferred me to Bellevue, where I was for two months. I liked it there actually. It’d been such a hard year. A long line of deaths, my girlfriend and before that my brother, my sister. But I’ve gotten so used to it, I don’t think I’ve ever cried. I get depressed, but I don’t cry. If it comes out out here on the street, I’ll get stomped over. So I try my best and I know I’m going to be alright at some point.
Logan: How long have you been living outside?
Frank: The past three months, but on and off for ten years. I’ve had jobs, I have had a job and an apartment. But not in a long time.
Logan: Where do you sleep now?
Frank: Sometimes I’m lucky, there’s a place I go to on 42nd street, a quick stay hotel, the kind men usual bring women to, or other men to, you know, whatever. It’s $15 or $18 for 3 or 4 hours. So if I make enough money I can go there and lock the door and sleep for 4 hours.
What I’m wearing right now is everything I own. Every time I gather stuff, get a bag, it gets taken. I have a cheap phone, I try to keep a phone, it’s the only way to contact me. I don’t have credit on it now, but maybe I’ll get some later. I’m 60, I’m getting old, I can’t fight anymore. I used to fight back, if somebody takes my stuff, it makes me want to hurt them. I don’t carry a knife, I’m not a violent person, I don’t want to be a violent person, but yeah, if someone takes my stuff, I’m going to defend myself. My hand is broken in three places, I went to a clinic in Queens and they took a bunch of x-rays. My cheek bones are plastic implants, I had my face bashed in. I’ve had so many concussions. I have some dementia, sometimes I forget what I’m talking about. Maybe it’s the concussions. I don’t know. I used to be on some good medicines for it, but I can’t get them anymore. I used to have Medicaid and I don’t right now but I’ve been trying to get it and I just don’t have it in me. They want 16 forms of identification but I don’t have any, everything was stolen. So I have been going through the process of getting a New York State I.D., but I just don’t have it in me anymore. I’m more successful asking people for money. I hate to do it, I don’t like doing it, but it’s easier.
Logan: Where did you sleep last night?
Frank: Sometimes I take the A train, it’s the longest route in the city and you can stay a long time on that route. But last night I took the 3 train to East New York, New Lots Avenue. There’s a transitional living place there where I used to live, I’m not allowed there anymore because I don’t live there anymore, but I feel safe there and so sometimes I go there and sleep on the grounds. I lived there a couple of years ago, they helped me find some housing, but it was just temporary. So sometimes I’ll go there and leave before the sun comes up.
Logan: How much money have you made today?
Frank: Not much, let me see here, I have $4 and some change today. On a good day if I’m out working, I’ll hopefully make $25 if I can. Then I can get a room, sleep for a few hours, have a few dollars left to get something to eat. I can eat once a day, or sometimes I don’t even eat.
Logan: When you’re working, are you always in the same place?
Frank: No, I move around. I used to be on that corner a lot and some of the people got to know me. But then I got arrested for aggressively panhandling. If you’re just sitting with a sign they will leave you alone. Except in midtown. The police are nasty in midtown because there are tourists and they don’t want you there.
Logan: Do you ever sit with a sign?
Frank: I do better if I approach people and say I’m hungry. Many people are nice. Some aren’t, but many are. But can I tell you one thing that is disgusting?
Frank: So many people, if I’m by a bar, will say, come in with me, I’ll buy you a drink. I don’t drink. I don’t drug. That’s one thing I’m proud of. And I’ll say, I don’t need a drink, I need something to eat, and they’ll keep walking. They won’t give me a dollar, but they’ll say they’ll buy me an $8 beer. But that’s what happens, and it’s insanity.
Logan: Is getting arrested ever a good thing? Food or shelter?
Frank: Have you ever been inside?
Logan: No, I haven’t.
Frank: It’s horrible to be inside. People act like animals, and they choose to. I know I’m being detained for something I did, and I choose not to act like an animal. But that’s always a risk. We could leave here and you could go that way and I could go this way and by the time you got to the park I could have handcuffs on.
Logan: I don’t want to keep you much longer, I know you have to get back to work, but thank you so much for your time. Will you go back to that corner now?
Frank: I might try to find my friend, he’s usually around this neighborhood. I trust him some and he likes to know where I sleep. I think he’s 63. He made a lot of money at one point and had a family, but he lost it all and now he has nothing. He’s trying to learn the streets and I am helping him out. So I’ll try to find him and give him some of this sandwich.