The thing with working nights is, you get familiar with the homeless and transient population of New York. They tend to sleep days, when it’s safe, and keep an eye on their back or their shopping carts, at night. While the city sleeps, they’re working the trains, the platforms, the streets. In Union Square there’s a girl with a dog—looks just pitifully ill, but pulls in more than the average non-union musician in a night. And doesn’t have to buy strings. One of the news channels did a story on another 14th-street girl who looks anorexic and close-to-death. Her legs are gnarled up and crooked; it’s hard not to feel some guilt if you pass without giving her something. But the crew shot her-- 6 AM, after 'work', undercover, skipping around, running her mouth off, laughing, chugging a forty and cursing out some frightened pedestrians like a feisty old pitbull.
When I first moved uptown I got hit up by one of the locals—you know, the one with the boombox who hangs out just south of the Harlem Meer, up on the hill, laughing and singing. He asked me for a twenty. I laughed, gave a buck… and he chewed me out, right there in the street—‘I said a TWENTY, keep your goddamn bill you fuckin cheap white bitch.’ He picks on the rich white kids—threatens to tell their parents he caught them smoking dope if they don’t pay him off. One neighbor had a T-shirt made for him which is now faded and worn. Give me a Twenty and I’ll Leave You Alone for 30 Days, it said. He knows me now, sees me struggling with bags late-nights. Once we crossed paths on a corner; like a street-city-miracle, I looked down and there, right there—was a $5. I could use the five. Kids to feed. I nodded my head. He picked it up; ‘Can’t fuckin believe I missed that one,’ he said. That was my pay-off. He looks out for my son, now… won’t take even a quarter. Not even the night he told me he’d just tested positive for AIDS.
I had my first lesson in charity when I was 10. It came in the form of a huge gallon jug of pennies—years of my Dad’s throw-aways. I was going to put them in rolls, buy a guitar. But there was a blind guy who sat by the IRT on 59th Street--- bobbing his head back and forth day in and day out with this German Shepherd on a blanket, the tin cup thing. I learned about charity at religious school, thought about how blind people weren’t afraid of the dark. So I loaded my little wagon with the huge jug thing and lugged it down to the guy. Here, I said….. and he jabbed in his hand, started moving his head even quicker; his filmy eyes were rolling back and forth. ‘PENNIES?’ he exclaimed…”PENNIES?’ ‘Yes, I said proudly’….’You mean they ain’t no quarters. No dimes or nuthin’?’ ‘Well, I answered, there may be one or two’… ‘One or ‘two? You got to be shittin me!’ And the dog began to growl softly…..’Okay, I said nervously… I’ll take them back’. And he told me to get the fuck out of there… without the jar. I wheeled my empty wagon home with my charity tail between my legs and halfway down the block I could hear him muttering ‘PENNIES! You got to be shittin me! Cheap fuckin white bitch!’ I couldn’t even cry. I couldn’t tell my parents. It was like my first scarlet letter. Branded.
I do my grocery shopping at 3 AM on the Upper West. I am generally the only one using cash. On the nights benefit cards are refilled, the crack addicts are waiting for me, competing with offers of up to $10 discount if I let them swipe my groceries and hand them cash in exchange. Sometimes I feel guilty contributing to their habit; sometimes I’m glad to ease their pain. I give them full value and they curse me out anyway, some nights. No matter how poor I am, how sympathetic, I’m a fucking white bitch.
Last week my teenage son absolutely had to have these new Adidas Megabounce sneakers. He nagged, begged, cursed, yelled, banged the walls. Track, He was joining the track team. Except he was the ONLY ONE without the shoes. Maybe you should do a bake sale, I suggested. A benefit. He cursed me out. His coach was cursing me out, he insisted. The coach that prescribed the shoes. Not the $20 or $50 ones. The $120 ones. Uniform. It’s been so many years since I bought clothing expensive enough to have to pay tax. I’ve learned a thrift shop pair is cheaper than new heels in this neighborhood. For me. But I broke down. Thinking track. Athletic scholarship. His face when he opened the box was great. For about 10 seconds. Next day he wanted a hoodie. It’s going to be weeks until we have meat again. Pray to the God Adidas for a miracle, I say. How did he take this? Not ‘okay’, not ‘sorry’…but under his breath, ‘Fucking white bitch’. Do I slap him, punish him? He’s six foot one. I do not. Merry Christmas.
I had a gig with my blues band last night. Who says white people can’t have the blues. I met Muddy Waters, years ago. I was young. I sat on his lap in the dressing room. He felt like an old tree. I could hear his lyrics last night: ‘I bought my baby a Cadillac.. She said that’s a common gift… I saw my baby drivin down Main Street… And she REFUSE to give me a Lift….’
So you don’t have to be white to be a bitch.
But I must be doing something wrong.