Home: a premeditation
I pass the first homeless person on our street on my way home from the 72nd Street subway station. He has fashioned a sort of cardboard wall out of a large box. He’s a man of several boxes, and has pushed a smaller one over the neon light that shines on the steps he inhabits. This lessens the glare somewhat, but still, he must live in perpetual semi-daylight. He lies each night in front of the West End Institutional synagogue, which takes up nearly a whole block of West 76th street, from Amsterdam to Columbus Avenue.
The second homeless person I pass on our street also has a small cardboard barrier erected between his inert body and the footpath. He’s in the middle section of the synagogue, where there’s a No Parking sign and less light. I note his camouflage blanket, softly fleecy, curled around his small body. Beside him, half open as though nudged off a sleeping chest, is a book. He has read himself to sleep.
The third homeless person I pass on our street camps at the end of the synagogue, right near my house, and arrived there not long before the first summer rainstorm. On that night, the rain pouring down in rivulets and the lightening figuring out all corners of the sky, I stood barely a meter from him and let myself get drenched as I watched him shiver, and wondered how to reach out. He had his back to me; as I know, now, he always has his back to the street. There is always a small, red suitcase, which looks like it’s wearing out. His knees are always bent, one leg is always on top of the other, he doesn’t seem to ever move. His skin is black and it’s tight and shiny and wrinkle-free; young, and homeless, and black.
Can you imagine sleeping with your back to the open world each night? There is no bedroom wall, no lover’s arm, no duvet no pillow no mattress no support no one no thing to lean against. Anybody could come stab you with a knife. Anybody could stand over you. Anyone could roll you over like a dog, kick you, do you over. It’s not a way to sleep soundly.
The night it pissed with rain and Homeless Man Number 3 shivered and I shivered I eventually trudged home and called 311. I’d seen ads in the subway that told us we could give homeless people ‘change they could really use’ by calling this number and asking for help. I was eventually connected to the Department of the Homeless; said I’d like to report a group of homeless people. All on one street. My street. No, I didn’t know what they looked like. They are all black, I think, I said in response to the operator’s question about ethnicity. I’ve only seen their backs, their blanket-covered legs. I don’t know them. “Yes,” I agreed with the operator, “please do see if they want to go to a shelter.” It was the operator who thanked me, like I’d done something right.
I want to bring these homeless people into our house, if. There is always an ‘if.’ If we had a… spare room. The living room isn’t… enough. A spare bed, I mean not just the sofa. A different society. Someone else’s. A different time. Earlier in my life. I long to and I stare at them the nights I pass them by. They don’t change, my impotence doesn’t change. One night I have a half eaten slice of pizza in hand and I hover, wondering if laying it outside of the box wall but within reach of Homeless Man Number 1 will make any difference to his night. I’m drunk and I eat it all before making a decision.
As a sudden, cold blast of wind – a final roar of spring – scours the city only homeless man number 3 braves the synagogue steps. I call 311 again. Those men, the operator at the Department of the Homeless tells me, didn’t accept the offer of shelter last time I called. So, what can you do?
It’s really cold, and it’s late, and I go outside to check on him. He is wearing only shorts, like always. He is asleep, his back resolutely turned on the footpath. I wrap ten bucks in a page printed from the internet that shows a list of shelters to stay in the upper west side area, pretend I don’t know that he doesn’t want to be in one. I stuff the sheet and bucks in the foremost pocket of his red suitcase, the part which is unzipped, and he carries on sleeping, oblivious to me and my desire to change his circumstances, to give him something he could really use. Then I wander back to my apartment, to my warm life, fuzzy bathrobe, hot tea and anytime-of-the-day-or-night snacks. It is 11pm when I reach my bed and my partner has stirred with the commotion. “Oh,” he says, when he feels me flop into bed, reaching out a lazy arm, “you’re home.”