I read this piece in the December 2021 (Vol. LXXXIX, No. 7) edition of the Catholic Worker Newspaper and was deeply moved by it. I couldn't find it anywhere, so here it is transcribed from the newspaper. Please let me know if there are any issues by emailing me at the email found on the root of this website.
It's been over two years since I've slept outside the hospital near Sotheby's. If you walk east on 72nd Street, past Weill Cornell Medical Center and York Avenue, you arrive at a dead end high above FDR Drive. Here there are five seldomly used benches facing out towards the East River and Roosevelt Island. I slept on the one to the far left, where the lighting was dimmer, hoping not to draw too much attention to myself. Most benches in the city have serious obstructions to sleeping on them, but as far as for these, you only need slide your torso through the circular armrest in the middle to get comfortable. I almost always slept well here, alone except for the doorman across the street, while the river stopped and changed direction in the dark below us.
But this makes it sound much more tolerable than it really is. For one thing, it rains, on average, 114 days per year in New York. And, strange as it may sound, you can wake up shivering even in the summer—although it isn't cold at night, it's the drop in temperature, sometimes quite significant, that your body registers. Nights when the rain comes unexpectedly, when you need to pack up in a hurry and search for the nearest scaffold — these are the nights I'm content to forget.
Before deciding to write this article, I realized that I'd forgotten much of a very specific routing that was second nature only a couple of years ago. It took some time to remember my improvised pillow, actually a small blanket stuffed inside a shoulder bag, or my hardly daunting security system, a thin rope tied around my wrist, looped through my pillow/bag, and finally tied to my backpack. This, of course, wouldn't discourage even the most timid thief; nonetheless, I was extremely fortunate to have never been robbed. This isn't typical—many people are robbed on a weekly or even daily basis.
Becoming homeless is always a calamity, whether for a day or a decade. Closing the front door behind you and knowing you won't return to your own bed again will bring anyone to tears. I was lucky to endure it only a year, from Near Year's Day of 2019 to Christmas of the same year.In December of 2018. I was living with thirteen roommates in a two-bedroom in Gravesend. Looking back, this arrangement seems hardly better than the shelter, at the very least we had a stove, a warm shower and no curfew. Since I couldn't find a job, I'd been eating and volunteering at the Church of the Holy Apostles, allegedly the busiest soup kitchen in the United States, certainly the busiest in New York. This came to a disastrous end on Christmas day of 2018, when I tried to separate a security guard from a woman being dragged out of the church by her shirt collar. Between this terrible scene and New Year's Eve, I spent most of my time in bed, crying inconsolably wishing I had more courage to face tomorrow.
Most of my time in the shelter was spent at a building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Once home to June Jordan, Shirley Chishold and Lena Horne, gentrification is now rendearing Bed-Stuy as unremarkable as most neighborhoods in New York. This trend may also have something to do with the closing of the particular shelter I stayed in which occurred after I'd left, but before the appearance of Covid-19.
The room where I slept was shared by twelve women. One of these was S. an older woman who got along with everyone and generously shared the contraband (potato chips, cookies, etc.) she kept in her locker. One night, when S refused a random locker inspection, the shelter's manager decided to get the police involved. No matter how insignificant the issue, the police never arrive with less than five officers. This didn't persuade S., resulting in a humiliating hours-long standoff. Deep into the night, when the police at long last surrendered and left, the twelve of us finally slept.
L., another one of my roommates, had a habit of checking in late and loudly announcing her arrival. I found her somewhat aggravating, and so, regrettably, I didn't bother getting to know L. for some time despite occupying adjacent beds. I only abandoned this judgemental attitude when one day, after most of our roommates had left for the morning, she showed me two precious possessions among the few she had room for in her locker—Superman and Miss Piggy dolls given to her by her grandmother when she was young. It amazed me that these had made the journey with her from childhood into adulthood and even into the shelter. It also showed me that L. was as hopelessly sentimental as I am. And, more than that, she really was a kind and hysterically funny person once I got to know her.
When I left the shelter in the spring, I started sleeping on subway trains. There are a few considerations that must be taken into account if you want to get some decent, if spasmodic, sleep. Fr one thing, you want to find a train that stays underground. If you're familiar with the subway system, it's easy enough to rule out certain trains based on this factor alone—for instance, the F and N lines terminate at Coney Island where the cold Jamaica Bay air rushes in. You also want to avoid trains that pass through crowded stations, like the Port Authority or Grand Central, where riders will wake you and tell you to move. And finally, you're better off avoiding stations with a regular police presence, like the relatively new 2nd Avenue line where the Q train runs. As pointless as it seems, you will eventually be ticketed for sleeping in an empty subway car, though U wonder if anyone's ever paid the $100 fine.
Thus all considered, I spent most nights riding the R train, a little used line (at least overnight) that bounces back and forth along a short route between Whitehall, at the southern tip of Manhattan, and 95th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This checked all the boxes—no above-ground stations, few commuters, no cops. Unfortunately, these criteria also make it easy to be taken advantage of by people with bad intentions, as when I awoke one night to a man straddled over me, kissing me. He seemed bewildered by my panic and desperation to escpae. I'm afraid this could have ended much worse. Luckily, I only spent a very nervous and drawn out couple of minutes waiting for the train to pull into the next station, where I was able to leave unfollowed. So ended my nights riding the trains
Pigeon Park is a small concrete park on the Upper East Side containing benches and a few stone planters. It seems to be one of the obligatory public spaces built in tandem with luxury condominiums. This is where I met T., a gay veteran who'd' been homeless for seventeen years. He'd joined the military shortly after graduating high school and after coming out to his mother. When he left for basic training, she didn't even bother to say goodbye.
Sometimes T. and I would make a little money camping out for free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, a series of summer performances at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. In return for fifty dollars, we and dozens of other homeless recruits would give our tickets to a scalper. I can only assume she sold these to unwitting tourists, probably for much more than she paid us.
After getting paid, it was typical for T. to buy a pack of cigarettes and a "2.75"—the cheapest flask of liquor sold near Pigeon Park. On one occasion, he decided he didn't want to drink the rest of his fifty dollars and tried to give it to a street vendor we passed on our way back to the park. She refused and told him to buy something. She was probably trying to give us a hint to go but, undiscouraged, T. picked up a small knit cap among the baby clothes laid out on the table and asked, "How much for this?" Whatever the price was he didn't have enough, and in case we hadn't caught on, the vendor raised her voice to say, "This isn't cheap stuff!" T. gave up, put the money back in his pocket, and walked back to Pigeon Park, bitterly kicking a discarded newspaper down the curb along the way. I followed behind, dejected, not knowing what to say.
Even as the days blurred together, I could still find reasons to look forward to the weekend. On Thursday nights, Rutgers Presbyterian Church serves dinner along with a movie, always introduced by the same enthusiastic volunteer. On Fridays, ST. James Episcoal Church serves dinner restaurant-style, volunteers taking orders (meat or vegetarian) and waiting on each neatly set table. This is also one of the few places that distributes the Midnight Run schedule, an invaluable resource since distribution stops usually differ for each run. Midnight Run is a volunteer organization that distributes an abundance of useful items from jeans, shoes and sleeping basto coffee and snacks, at many stops throughout Manhattan. My friends and I often waited for their van after eating at St. James.
On Saturdays, there is an extremely popular soup kitchen on the Upper East Side, familiarly known as "Carl's". This is actually the Manhattan Church of Christ, but as much as he tries to discourage it, the Saturday meal has become synonymous with its head chef, Carl, who is famous for his barbecued chicken. Closer to Maryhouse and St. Joe's, there is also Church of the Village, another popular Saturday meal. My friends and I often ate lunch here before catching a later meal at the nearby Village Temple, which I liked for their soup and the cozy, if sometimes crowded, setting.
Before the pandemic struck, I still attended many of these meals. I suspect that, as is true for the Catholic Worker, many of these operations probably look much different today. I only hope that in the coming year, all of these communities can provide the same comfort that they gave me then.
I've thought hard about the meaning of hope, if there can be one, in a city with so many homeless people through these cold months of winter. When you're homeless, no matter how warm a welcome you receive on Christmas day or any other, when night falls, doors are closed to you—and there's no hope, no comfort in that. There are so many reasons to despair—the name of every deceased homeless person is read aloud annually at Judson Memorial Church on December 21st, the longest night of the year.
In priest and civil rights activist Pauli Murray's poem "Dark Testament", one can find the following lines:
Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird's wing
Broken by a stone
I think it means that hope is born in the moment when the need to do something collides with what feels like the inability to do anything, like a bird with a broken wing.