John and Patricia and the Woman in a Hoodie
On Tuesday I retraced my steps from the week before, in search of another homeless person to interview. Frank had approached me, and I liked the dynamic of that. I didn’t want to disturb someone, didn’t want to assume anything of anyone, either. So I decided I was either looking for someone to approach me first or for a person with a sign.
I walked for 20 minutes and didn’t find anyone. I headed to Tompkins Square Park and there were plenty of people on benches, people who looked like they could be homeless, dirty people, tired people, people with suitcases. I guess I could go up to any of them, sit with them, ask them for their story. But I didn’t want to impose, and definitely didn’t want to assume. But what’s the worst thing that would happen? Someone would say no. Or someone would be offended. I don’t have to say I’m interviewing homeless people. I could just be interviewing anyone. Anyone sitting on a bench in this park in the middle of the day has a story as to why they’re there.
I looped through the park twice and couldn’t do it, so I went to a diner. I ate some lunch and then asked for some soup to go. I continued walking downtown. Here’s how it would play: I would say, “I don’t have money, but I do have this soup. Can I sit with you while you eat it? I run a website about people’s lives, and I’d love to talk to you about yours, if you’ll let me.” I carried the soup around for two hours. I passed plenty of people who looked down on their luck, and I suppose I could have talked to any of them, but no one approached me, no one had a sign, so I kept walking. I got to the end of the island. If I didn’t know better, I’d say New York didn’t have a lot of homeless people, ha ha ha. Ha. I know better. I went to the subway. There was an older man sitting on the steps with a suitcase. He looked dirty. He looked tired. Maybe he would want my soup. But what if he was just sitting there to rest—what if offering him soup would be saying, I think you look like you can’t afford your own soup? Better not. Better to leave people their dignity. I got on the train. Took my soup home. It’s still in my fridge. It’s been over a week. I need to throw it out.
Friday I had dinner at my friend Meghan’s—squash stuffed with bread and cheese, broccoli, red wine, whisky to finish. We laughed and talked and played with her cat. And then it was time to walk home. A block from her house a man asked me for money. He was white, balding, maybe in his late 40s. He looked tired. He looked rough. He asked if I had bus fare, and I stopped and said, “Let me see what I have.” I pulled out a dollar and handed it to him, but instead of moving on, he kept talking. He just got out of jail, today. He had gone to the shelter up the block, but they wouldn’t take him because the papers he had said he had to go to a shelter in Queens. So he needed to get to Queens. They gave him a Metrocard to get to the shelter but he’d already used it to get to this shelter, the wrong shelter. It was 10:30 at night. He was tired, and frantic, just starting to realize that tonight he might be sleeping on the street. I told him I’d see if I had anything else. I took a handful of change from the bottom of my bag and started picking out the silver coins. Pennies are worthless-buses don’t take them, neither do vending machines.
While I sorted he pulled out two cards to prove he was telling the truth, both of them thick white plastic with his name and picture and large red letters saying INMATE. I told him I believed him. Once I’d given all I had, I said good luck to him. “It’s John, right?” I’d read his ID. “Yes,” he said. I shook his land, said good luck to him again. We both walked on.
I continued down the block and turned towards home. On a dark residential block, a woman propped up against some steps asked if I had any money for a sandwich. “I don’t, I’m sorry,” I said. “Thank you anyway,” she said, and something about her—her voice, that I’d come across her sleeping spot, that she’d asked for a sandwich, made me turn at the next block and find a corner store. It could also have been the bottle of wine I drank with dinner. That also might be what made me turn. No sandwiches. But they had bread, peanut butter, jelly. I grabbed some string cheese and an orange juice, too, and next to the cash register, some fruit leathers, sure. $22.36. Okay here is my card. Do you have a knife? He didn’t have a plastic knife but did have a plastic fork. That would be annoying, trying to spread peanut butter with a fork, it would tear the bread, but maybe she could turn it around and use the handle to approximate a knife.
I walked back to where the woman had been, she was still there, her hood pulled up over her head, her arms crossed for warmth. Maybe she was asleep. I could have just left the bag. I thought about just leaving the bag. But instead I said, excuse me, I bought you some groceries. She said thank you and I said good luck to you and have a good night and walked home. My building was just a few blocks away, I was there in a flash. Climbed the stairs of my building, put the key in my door. Immediate warmth—the heat’s been turned on. Sometimes I come home and plop into bed, clothes on, not caring. That night I washed my face, brushed my teeth, put on a nightgown.
Patricia was sitting on a little seat on a walker on 1st Avenue when she asked me if I could give her some money to get something to eat, she hadn’t eaten in two days. I didn’t have any cash on me, but I would go buy her something to eat, what did she want? “A grape soda,” she said. Okay, I could do that. There was a corner store half a block away and I walked there. Found her grape soda, wanted to get her something else. But what. Nuts? Chips? A banana? I decided on a croissant wrapped in plastic. “Butter croissant” it said, with little drawings of chunks of butter on it. I walked back and handed it to her. I wondered if she’d be surprised that I came back. She didn’t look surprised. She looked tired. I handed her the soda. “I also bought you a croissant,” I said.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Bread,” I said.
“What’s in it?” she asked.
“Just bread,” I said.
She stood up and opened the little seat on her walker to reveal a little compartment with a water bottle, some orange juice. She added the grape soda and the croissant to the pile, put the seat back down, sat on it. “I’m gonna eat that later,” she said. It made sense, who would give money to someone who already had a little pile of goods. “What are you doing out here today?” I asked.
“Asking people for money,” she said. It was a stupid question.
“Do you have somewhere to live right now?”
“I’m staying in a shelter in Queens,” she said. “Sometimes on the weekends I can stay with my sister in the Bronx, she’s got my kids.”
“How old are your kids?”
“Two, four, and seven. They’re just babies! But my sister is taking care of them, and I see them when I can, when I can get some money to give her for food for them.”
“But you can’t stay there?”
“There isn’t room, so many people living in that apartment. Sometimes I can stay there on the weekend for a night.”
“How long have you been living in the shelter?”
“Six months. And I hate it. I hate it. I don’t do drugs, don’t drink anymore. There’s bad influences there. But I’m done with that. I used to be so messed up, but I’m done with that. I just want a home for me and my babies.”
“Where were you before the shelter?”
“I had an apartment in Queens, it was a nice apartment, I took care of it, but I lost it and everything is horrible since then. It’s so hard. Everything is so hard. And I have HIV.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you taking medicine for it?”
“I was, I was, but not anymore. I’ve tried to sign up for Medicaid again, I used to get it, but then I lost it and now they want your birth certificate, your social security card—I don’t have any of that stuff. I can’t go get that stuff.”
“What would help you get it?”
“I’d need someone to drive me all over town, fill out all the paperwork. It’s so much work.”
“Do your babies also have HIV?”
“They do, they do. But they’re getting their medicines at least.”
“Before you lost your apartment—did you have a job?”
“No I can’t work with this,” she gestures to the walker.
“Do you have it because you get so tired?”
“No, because my leg, I’m in pain. I was raped a few years ago.”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“He shot me here and here and bit my arm, bashed my face. I was such a mess.” She starts crying.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” I say again.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore, it’s so hard to remember it.”
“You don’t have to talk about it anymore, I’m so sorry I brought it up.”
“Everything is so hard. It’s so hard. But I believe in God. And I don’t believe God is going to leave me like this forever.”
I say that I need to go, I’ll let her get back to work, but is there a way to contact her, does she have a phone? “No I don’t even have a phone.”
“What about somewhere you go regularly? Is this your spot?”
“No, I go wherever I go, I’m here today because there is a center there for HIV and Hepatitis patients, I was hoping to get a bed, always check to see if they have a bed, but no beds, never any beds. But I go to church, every week, up the street. I go to bible study, and then to the soup kitchen. They feed me dinner and sometimes they let me sleep there. God lets you in even if you don’t have a home. Do you read the bible?”
“No, I don’t.”
“We’ll get you reading the bible.”
“I wish I had more to give you. I can give you a hug?”
“I’d like that.” I leaned over and hugged her, and she hugged me back, not the loose-armed hug of girlfriends saying bye after brunch, but a real hug. I squeezed her tighter, then let go.
“Thank you for that,” she said. “I really needed that.”
I continued down the street where I was headed, which was the Trader Joe’s wine store. I was meeting a friend for dinner later and said I’d bring wine. I did not feel good about being there, but in the label checking and and comparing, the finding of the ID, the swiping of the card, I’d distracted myself. But as the doors opened and I headed back into the day, I thought: Patricia.
Before I went to bed I read Ian Frazier’s New Yorker piece on homelessness in NYC. He’d done what I had been doing—walked around, talked to people for a little while, heard their stories, shared some bits of them. I’ve talked to Frank and John and Patricia. He’s talked to Christina, Diana, Kiki, Marcus. I don’t know what else to do.