Jay was leaning against the fence in front of the church on Broadway, holding out a plastic coffee cup, asking for change. He was in socked feet and blue booties, the kind that would wrap around a cast or a sprained ankle. He was standing on a thin piece of styrofoam, and had a shopping bag and a backpack on the ground text to him. I stopped and said, hello, and he smiled a huge smile that I wasn’t expecting.
Logan: How are you doing today?
Jay: I’m doing okay, it’s not too cold out, the sun is shining. My hands are a little cold, but that’s it. I’m good.
What are you doing out here today?
Getting money. I don’t like doing it, but I have to do it, so I do it. But it’s not so bad. People know me. People are mostly nice.
What are you going to do with the money you earn?
I’m hoping to get $20 so I can go sleep in a friend’s basement. He’s the super of a building, and if I bring him $20, he’ll let me sleep in the basement. It’s not the best situation, I’m not going to lie, but it’s something.
Do you have family?
Yeah, I have an ex-wife and two kids in California. My son is 15, he won’t talk to me, doesn’t want anything to do with me. But my daughter is older, 22, and we talk sometimes.
Do they know you’re living outside?
I’m not living outside.
I’m sorry, I misunderstood.
I’m just in between. And no, no they don’t. They have enough to worry about. I’m not someone to ask for anything. I have family and friends who might take me in or help me out, but I don’t want to ask. My parents are dead, but even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t ask anything from them. I’ve always taken care of myself. This is just temporary, until I get my check.
Disability check, social security. I can’t work anymore, not with my feet like this, and my arthritis. I can barely use my hands, can’t straighten my fingers.
Are you in pain?
No, no. There’s some pain in my hands, but I can ignore it. My feet hurt after standing for awhile, I’m not going to lie. That’s why I carry around this pad to stand on.
So until you get your check, you’re in between places.
Yeah, exactly. I sleep in the train station if I have to or in a basement. I know a few people who will let me stay on their couch. But I don’t sleep on the streets.
How long have you been without a place?
It’s been a few months. I have two college degrees. I used to make $100,000 a year! But I have diabetes and I got sick and had to get my toes amputated, then I was in a rehab hospital for almost a year.
I’m sorry to hear that. How long have you been out of the hospital?
A few months. So I got out of the hospital and filed my papers and now I’m just waiting for the check. Bureaucracy takes time! It’ll all be okay once I get the check.
How will you know when you get the check? If you don’t have an apartment?
It’s getting sent to my friend’s house, he’ll let me know.
How did you pay for the hospital? Did you have insurance?
Once I was in the rehab hospital, if you’re out of work for that long, Social Security kicks in, disability. And now I’ll get my checks. I’m going to get $2,100 a month, enough to get a room somewhere and start taking care of some bills. And I’ll get back pay when the red tape finally clears, so my first check will be $5,000, $6,000. I’m okay. I’m going to be okay. But until then, I’m still a spender. Still have to eat. So I ask for money here. But I don’t have a sign. I just stand here with my cup, and if someone wants to help, they help.
How much will you make in a day?
It depends. Some days I make $40, some days I’ll make $140. A man yesterday gave me a hundred dollar bill, that was nice. So it depends.
Is anyone ever mean to you?
No people are great, people know me, they recognize me.
Have you made friends with other people on the streets?
Well, I’m not on the streets.
Okay, other people asking for money?
No, not really. So many of the people out here are on heroin. Did you know that? Everyone is on heroin.
Not everyone, surely. But how do you know?
They tell me! And they’ll be asking for money and say, it’s not for heroin—but it’s for heroin! But I don’t touch that stuff, that’s not me. I’m just needing a few dollars while I wait for my check. Not to say I’m a saint! I’m not. I do drink alcohol sometimes, I will admit! Sometimes I’ll go to this Applebee’s in Queens, they have good specials, I’ll get a beer, watch the game, talk to some people.
Do you talk about your situation with the guys there?
No, no. No reason to bring that up. This isn’t who I am.
What kind of work were you doing before?
Electrical work. I was in the union and was making six figures! But you can’t do that work with wounds all over your feet. It wasn’t just the wounds, they got infected, that’s how I ended up in the rehab hospital. Months with IV antibiotics. But I’m better now, and now I have to just get over this little hump and get my check.