Homeless, New York City
edited: Monday, October 20, 2003
By Laurie Anthony
Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2003
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My observations when I first moved to New York City provide the backround for my book.
Homeless, New York City
In New York City, there were always people to watch, conversations to overhear, and food to be bought. The myriad of people here was truly the melting pot I had learned about in school. Business people, joggers, dog-walkers, tourists, shoppers, artists, construction workers, city workers, dancers in their tights, teenagers moving in groups on skateboards, bicycle delivery men, vendors, and the shoes. The diversity of the city was in the shoes. Platforms, spiked heels, tennis shoes, winged-tipped, shiny black shoes, hiking boots, open-toe sandals, clogs, backless heels, Doc Martins, Sketchers, knee-high leather boots, and Birkenstocks. For each pair of shoes there was a hairstyle to match. The many hairstyles and hair colors reflected the city’s diversity of age, color and personality, from the reddish-black streaked hair to the thick braided plaits extending down backs.
Early in the morning, the benches in the park were covered with bodies in blankets and coats, with paper bags and cans on the ground around them. The homeless. One man was pulling down his pants next to a tree to relieve himself; another man was searching through a trashcan. If I stopped and sat down, someone would always approach me and ask for money or food. It was as if I wore a sign on my face that said, “Ask me, I won’t say no.” Perhaps it was the relaxed way that I sat, or my open journal or book, or my informal attire. My husband said my face told all--even behind sunglasses I wore an open invitation.
First, I left food on benches--fresh bagels, donuts, juice, and coffee. I knew someone would appreciate it. Then I got bolder and started talking to homeless people that approached me and asked for some money or food. I watched one young woman move down the path slowly, her cerebral palsy making the task of lifting her bag cumbersome. She sat down and breathed a heavy sigh and my heart went out to her. I decided to approach her. Her name was Linda; she was thirty-four years old. She told me her story-- how she was trying to save enough money for bus fare to get back home to Minnesota. She had $1000 once, but it was stolen and now panhandled on Fifth Avenue in front of the church. A good place there, she said, people very generous to her. It was hard for me to keep sitting there; her unpleasant body odor reached my nostrils and I had to keep turning my face away. She talked easily as I asked her questions and I knew she just needed someone to listen to her. She said her family threw her out because she couldn’t get a job. When she said she planned to get a job at MTV, I knew she was out of touch with reality. I wanted to give her money for bus fare but I didn’t. I wished her luck and I walked away. I felt torn inside, wishing I could help her yet knowing there wasn’t much I could do. A social service agency needed to find her and hook her up with the appropriate services. She shouldn’t be on the streets—not with her physical disability and emotional problems.
Not all the benches were all empty. I noticed feet moving beneath an old army-green blanket. I breathed in a cloud of alcohol-scented air and suddenly a loud belch brought a woman upright on the bench. She scratched her head and rubbed her eyes. I jumped, more out of curiosity than fear, noticing her hair wild around her head, her cheeks wrinkled like walnuts and her caked-dry eyes. I looked away but my brain registered the sights and sounds I tried not to see. Someone sat down on another bench and blocked my view but I could still see inside this homeless woman, this woman with sandstone eyes.
I want to learn more about the homeless, I thought, and I went back to my bench and wrote in my journal, “I want to help a homeless person.” There was no doubt in my mind. I was drawn to the listless faces and saw their pain, pain measured in degrees by the heaviness of the eyelids. I was in New York City, and the plight of the homeless still drew me in, and their faces followed me home.