I maintain my own private version of 'New Yorker of the Week' awards. The designees get no public accolade or acknowledgment... just a silent heads-up from me... some spare change occasionally, because most of my heroes are either under- or unpaid for their courage and humanity... but since I am a member of the economic underprivileged, I hesitate to insult them with my pathetic donations and instead offer a kind of prayer on their behalf... or literary-underground immortality in one of the poems I scatter like autumn leaves find their way to obscurity-- or maybe to some school-child's fall art-project where they will be briefly loved. I can't help myself.
Last week's winner was a homeless man, sleeping temporarily on the steps of a church on Varick Street. I would not have noticed him; it was late, it was beginning to rain…and the staggering numbers of men spending nights on the streets in the last few years has inured us all to the sidewalk population. They seem to have food; their daily panhandling income, they tell me, averages somewhere between $50 and $150-- more than most real musicians I know earn for a gig. They stay out of the shelters where their egos are filed and shaved down to a brand of humility that is more lethal than an overdose. These places are dirty and dangerous. Despite the rules and regulations, possessions are not protected and sleepers are subject to violent attacks from other occupants who refuse to take their meds and experience psychotic and hostile episodes.
My man had risen around midnight-- relative calm on the streets-- to relieve himself… because as we all know, there are no public restrooms in the city after dark. The homeless visit and even bathe in Grand Central, Port Authority, the various library branches, MacDonald's, those Starbucks stores which are kind enough to share their restroom combinations. But at night-- well, even the parks are curfewed. We have well-enforced dog-waste laws, but my son tells me in Soho and Tribeca there is so much human shit on the streets these days that business owners have had community meetings about this. One store recently built an outdoor boxlike structure for advertisements and artistic displays. Every day they had to shovel out the excrement and hose the receptacle down with disinfectant until they just gave up on the whole campaign. Coming home at 2 and 3 AM, I have many times seen men defecating at either end of the subway platforms.
So my man squatted quietly at the edge of the steps, and with his head bowed, stood carefully to clean himself with the pages of an old paperback novel. I resisted the urge to see the title… but some passing young couples who witnessed his naked butt in the lamplight shadow-- well, they gasped and sniggered and pointed. The thing was-- he was tall-- like a basketball player… and his sinewy legs and butt were so perfect and beautiful, and the grace of his rising, and even the way he pulled up his layered pants and fixed his clothing-- well, it took my breath away. The sheer aesthetic reality of this man, trying to avoid falling into the cracks of the shelter treadmill, the humiliation and the consideration with which he waited until dark, until the traffic was moving, how he tried to avoid spectators… how his little pile of possessions was so neatly wrapped. He was not that far from being a boy; I could imagine his mother, who loved him, or maybe failed to love him and care for him… the women he could have had, in another version of the story… an athlete-- a star… it broke my heart.
I got on the train, feeling helpless and almost guilty because I have a place to go back to-- a place to sleep and take a hot shower, where my books and my instruments, God-willing, are relatively safe and sheltered enough so I can leave them and go about my work. Another disgraceful story on the discarded tabloids on the subway floor, with our orange-skinned Lego-President spouting more of his anti-humanitarian rhetoric. He in his gilded rooms on Fifth Avenue, security alone costing more than the annual food budget of a small country… with his umpteen bathrooms and his tanning beds and hair-magicians… he couldn't survive a week in the wilderness.
Why is it we all pick up after our dogs-- we pamper and love them.. and have little compassion to adopt stray people… are disgusted and uncomfortable about their natural needs? Hunger is a force here… disparity is baffling, and for these fallen souls-- getting back onto the track is near-impossible in a city where so many of us are barely holding onto our homes, finding ourselves with a lower standard of living than we could ever have imagined. I think of all those legends and fairy tales where the kings traded places with the paupers-- how it changed their worldview… what happened to this? We are all counting our money here… me, and some of these homeless--- counting the change in our pockets to see if we can buy a slice or a coffee… and the Wall Streeters assessing the daily fluctuations in their portfolios-- pushing a button and making more money in a single trade than most of us will see in a lifetime… and they are happy to lend you credit, your friendly banker who pays you no interest-- for a mere 25-30%. They bet on your failure to repay and they win big.
It makes no sense. My version of this week's fairy tale has the winning Mega Millions ticket belonging to my man of Varick Street… although things don't work this way. I do know the affliction of extreme poverty and homelessness is epidemic and chronic. It leaves scars and residual symptoms for even those lucky few who manage some kind of recovery. But most don't. No sociologist or journalist or researcher into the phenomenon quite understands what it is like to be homeless and needy in a city like this, where you are chased from doorways and sidewalks of buildings filled with tenants paying $10,000 month for a few rooms… Lady, a local man begged me-- Can you let me in the gate? He wanted to sleep in our trash alley where he will be locked safely against attack and theft. I was reprimanded by my Coop Board for this nominal act of compassion in a neighborhood where a bakery now charges $10 for a doughnut and coffee. Personally, I haven't bought myself a cup for years now. Things are tight. There but for fortune…. but that's another tale.
Today I remembered how my Mom once dressed me up as a 'tramp' on Halloween… at the time I had no clue what that meant, but I wore an old beat-up suit jacket and a bent hat and she smeared my face with coal like dirt. I had a scarf-sack on a stick over my shoulder. Everyone laughed and filled my sack with candy. A man on the block told me about 'hobo' life; it seemed romantic. I dreamed of runaway trains, of wandering, of campfires and hitchhiking…
Today I dream of a lottery for the poor-- where the billion dollar ticket gets divided among the homeless deprived angels of the street-- What was that old TV show… the Millionaire? The 21st century New York City update… that would be a reality show worth watching… (to be continued…)