Homeless New York

In New York, poverty hides in plain sight. Late afternoon is when the homeless go to work on the Upper West Side in the 70s and 80s off Columbus or Amsterdam. The streets there have tall townhouses, long since subdivided into apartments. Unlike purpose-built blocks, they have no uniformed doormen to scare the homeless off, nor do they have anywhere to put their garbage except out on the sidewalk or down in the basement area.

The homeless work the garbage, each man for himself, wrenching the lids off rubber garbage cans, untying black garbage bags or rummaging through the public litter bins, made of metal mesh and painted orange, which are placed a few yards apart along the sidewalks. Bottles and cans are picked out and stuffed into the sack each homeless man- they are mostly men in this part of town- carries on his back or, if he’s among the more organised, in the canvas laundry or mail truck he trundles around the streets. If you stand on a corner, you can watch two or three homeless clear an entire block in twenty or thirty minutes flat, looking for all the world like ragged inmates of some Soviet-style Gulag out to fill their daily quota.

For the most part, they work in silence. A great silence, a sort of general decorum, has settled over the New York homeless, unlike their London counterparts. In London, they still shout, swear, drink and beg in your face the way they used to do in Manhattan ten years ago. Nowadays, New York’s street people seem to have accepted, indeed perfected, their own invisibility. In London, you have to make an effort of will to ignore the homeless but here, where the numbers are much larger, you have to make a similar effort of will to notice them sitting silently in the angles of walls, bent over garbage cans, sprawled beside subway entrances or endlessly walking, as if shadowing of the rest of us who have homes.

Part of the difference is economic. In London, there’s begging and the Big Issue but also some public projects to help the homeless with money and shelter. In New York, homelessness is largely a private enterprise. Manhattan’s homeless are shadows who have their own shadow economy. In fact, there are at least three economies in New York- the mainstream one, the grey or black economy and the shadow economy of the homeless.

This shadow economy is based on garbage and its currency is plastic bottles and aluminium cans. Some years ago, the city passed a recycling law which forced shops and supermarkets to refund a few cents for each empty bottle and can returned to them. The law’s totally unintended consequence was to create an entire street industry. The homeless do the recycling that we- I include myself as a temporary New Yorker- are too lazy to do ourselves. To put it another way, the homeless are like an army of outdoor servants comparable to the indoor servants of the 19th century: it’s as if all the butlers and footmen and valets from the Gilded Age had been gathered together and thrown out into the street where they nevertheless continue to perform their customary task of clearing up after the rest of us (the maids and skivvies have a separate source of income in prostitution).

Recycling means subsistence for New York’s homeless and the returns can be surprisingly high. According to the author of a recent book describing the years he spent living as one of the “mole people” in the tunnels under Grand Central Station, he made between 40 and 60 dollars a day collecting cans and bottles out of stationary subway cars. True, our man had a good “pitch”, a better than average scam, as well as sympathetic subway workers who would slip him the keys to empty cars.

For those homeless living above ground, life is more competitive. But it can also be more organised. For example, there’s a kind of garbage factory or distribution centre on 8th Avenue, just south of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, at a spot where construction hoardings block the sidewalk and create a sheltered space. Numbers of homeless men rendezvous there each evening, laden with sacks full of bottles and cans they’ve collected during the day. The canvas laundry trucks form up, reminding you of how the covered wagons corralled on the prairie. A passer-by sees an impromptu production line at work, the merchandise taken out of its original sacks, then sifted, sorted by size and type, and re-packed to be exchanged for cash- much of which will be recycled in its turn, later that night, for drugs and alcohol.

The homeless work hard. But there’s also an extra level of economic activity on top of this basic labour. The homeless economy is diversified to include an entrepreneurial or “small trader” aspect. When they scavenge through other people’s garbage, they’re looking for anything and everything they can sell back to us, the original owners. They don’t need a market stall, let alone a shop, in order to trade. They do business by the simple expedient of spreading a blanket on the sidewalk and setting out their wares wherever there’s a bit of asphalt park or an intersection with benches for sleeping and drinking.

One such illegal “street mart” is on 9th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets on the east side of the avenue. It’s been there for years. Every so often, the police sweep it all away, but it’s back by the next morning. On a recent spring afternoon, the items for sale there included: saucepan lids; a cheap pair of women’s plastic sandals; several old pairs of women’s shoes; two ancient radios; old copies of ‘Playboy’ from the 1980s; LPs with Spanish language covers; old electric blenders, juicers, knife grinders and can openers; a pair of men’s leather gloves; a child’s stroller; and 6 volumes of the minutes of the UN High Commission for Refugees from 1962.

Who buys this stuff? Who in their right mind would want any of it? The short answer is, the poor. The homeless move back and forth between environmental recycling, with cans and bottles, and social and economic recycling, recycling the cast-offs of the middle-class to the working poor. Beyond that, I can only report there are also transactions, deals, swaps and scams that go on between and among the homeless peddlers themselves which I’ve never been able to penetrate, although I’ve witnessed them. These often take a long time to conclude and can get very emotional. I’ve passed the 56th Street corner when it’s like walking across the floor of the New York Stock Exchange where the stockbrokers dress in rags and spend their days haggling over a broken watch or half a stereo.

Did I say the homeless in New York are invisible? That’s not really true. Visiting the city for months at a time, always staying in the same apartment, I never got to know- or even to recognise- any of my neighbours in the building, but I soon learned to recognise the local homeless as if they were local landmarks- which in a sense they are.

There was the woman whose clothes were padded out with layers of newspapers and who carried over her shoulder a bulging knapsack that was almost as big as she was, like a character in a fairy story. On closer inspection, the knapsack was made of transparent sky-blue plastic and stuffed full of soda cans of many colours. Her “home” was an office doorway next to the donut shop.

There was the tall black man in a filthy pea coat who pushed a laundry truck piled high with junk and was always on the move, as if he was a busy executive with no time to spare.

There was the red-bearded wild man whose beat was between the subway and 10th Avenue and who appeared every few months with some new injury: an eye patch, a wrist in plaster, a surgical collar, a bruised and bloodied face.

Then there was the small, clean-shaven (where did he shave?) man with the knitted bobble hat and a poker face, like a weather-beaten Buster Keaton. His solitary “spot” was on 55th at the side of the Blimpies and he hardly ever seemed to move from there. He sat on an upturned wooden crate, his back against the wall, his hands folded in his lap, staring at the sidewalk in front of him for hours at a time, all but motionless. I’ve passed him late at night sometimes and he was still sitting there: I don’t know if he ever lay down to sleep. On a few occasions there was a modest sack of cans and bottles by his side which he guarded. At other times, when he was away from his pitch, I noticed that the crate and a folded piece of cardboard were pushed back against the wall and neatly stacked.

In his minimal, sedentary existence, which also seemed quiet and sad, the little man in the bobble hat was like a throwback to the days when it was still possible to be homeless in America and cut a sympathetic figure, a guy down on his luck, rather than someone to be feared and reviled. For several days in a row, when I passed him, he would be totally absorbed in writing or drawing on some sheets of paper. Once, I saw him with an old New York phone book which he studied intently for hours at a stretch, reading and annotating it as he went along, though I couldn’t see what it was he wrote. Again this went on for several days until one day the book disappeared and he was back staring at the pavement.

Then I recognised him in the queue at the supermarket one afternoon. You don’t expect to run into the homeless at the supermarket. What do they buy and how could they cook it? The little man was standing in the queue, as mute and modest as always, looking like any other shopper, if a little grimier than most. I remember thinking that, if you didn’t know his secret, you would never have guessed he was homeless.

The opposite of the bantam sitter was the flamboyant geezer with flowing white hair who rode a battered bicycle and had developed a technique of cycling between litter bins and garbage cans which he raided without ever having to dismount. A quick, one-handed dip and he was on to the next bin, as skilful in his own way as those legendary Mongol horsemen. A few of the homeless have bicycles, which they festoon and drape with all sorts of rubbish until the shape of the frame disappears beneath the decoration. Their bicycles remind me of the bicycles in Third World countries which are over-loaded in the same way, used as mobile storerooms in the same way, painted or hung with brightly coloured bits of refuse- half a dozen plastic windmills stuck around the carrier; silver paper wrapped around the spoke of a wheel; cheap portraits of the Pope or Elvis Presley stuck to the handlebars. But in the Third World they’re owned by the youthful poor who still have hope, who still believe they’re on the way up the ladder. In New York, on the other hand, these bicycle-mules are the last, precious possessions of the middle-aged and elderly homeless, who’ve gone so far down they’ve nothing left to lose- except, of course, their bicycles.

Not all the homeless work at recycling or street trading. There are philosophers among them who see the pointlessness of their garbage economy just as we, seeing our reflection in them, are brought face to face with the pointlessness of much of our own economic activity. The homeless philosophers are the drinkers. Most of the homeless drink or take drugs or are mentally ill, just as most of the rest of us drink or take drugs or are neurotic, but at any given time there will be a group of older, terminal drinkers and addicts at one end of the scale and a group of roaring boys and girls, young drinkers and addicts, who can take the physical punishment and shrug it off at the other end. The man with the red hair and the puckish face belongs to the former group. He’s definitely dying, a dead man walking or rather, since he’s never been sober when I’ve seen him, hobbling, weaving, stumbling and lying down. With his aureole of red and white hair and beard, he looks like an elf from a Santa Claus display, except that his face is always blotched and scratched. He spends his days either sitting in a doorway on 9th Avenue or lying comatose across the entrance to the subway at 57th and 8th. One winter, I left New York in January and didn’t return until high summer. The red-haired man was almost the first person I saw when I got back. He must have had a fall or a beating, and somebody had patched him up. He was hobbling along on a metal crutch, his body bare to the waist, his shoulders and his chest sunken and scrawny, his belly bloated. His filth-encrusted trousers were held up with a piece of string. He had a fat, dirty bandage around one foot and a bedroom slipper on the other. Despite, or because of, this state of dereliction, which was remarkable even for New York, nobody paid any attention to him. To all intents and purposes he didn’t exist as he shuffled along on his crutch, muttering furiously to himself.

If we ignore the homeless, the homeless mostly ignore us. If we condemn them ( that is, if we think about them at all), they view us with a bitter rage, seeing us as the brainwashed millions, the soulless conformists it’s their duty to relieve of as much spare change as possible. No one should underestimate the rage of the homeless, the insane pride which leads some of the most hopeless to see themselves in as quasi-noble light, as rebels or free spirits revolting against the machine, rather than the pathetic drunks and madmen that they are. Even those who don’t feel this way are full of rage: put two or three homeless people together and you’ll soon have an argument. However, recently I’ve noticed a new mood of indifference spreading among the New York homeless, especially the younger ones. They sit with their paper begging cups by their side or they twitch them between their fingers, and they don’t bother to look up or chant their mantra about spare change as you walk by. They get on with their own lives, if such a thing is possible when living on the streets. Sometimes, they read a newspaper while they beg. Sometimes, they play with their dogs. It’s as if begging has become a tired ritual for both parties- the homeless and the straight- a ritual whose conventions are so well known to everyone that nobody needs to go through them any more in order to get the job done. Nobody needs actually to beg.

When the afternoon rush hour arrives in midtown Manhattan, the streets full with commuters starting on their journeys home to the suburbs. And the homeless stand around waiting to reclaim their own home, this same city the commuters occupy during the day. To the homeless, we are the ones who are out of place- or rather, who have taken over their place, dis-placed them. During rush-hour you can spot them hovering at the margins of the crowd, anxiously waiting until they can move back in and reclaim the favourite bench, the sheltered doorway, the steps in front of a friendly church. It must feel to them as if a couple of million strangers invaded their bedroom every day, leaving them nowhere to sleep. It’s when the city empties that the homeless become more prominent, more visible, and the difference between homeless men and homeless women is more obvious. The women are fewer and more overtly crazy. They wear more layers of second-hand clothing. They carry more bags and bundles or push shopping carts stuffed with old newspapers and mysteries parcels wrapped in waterproofing and tied around over and over again with too much string. Homeless, these women carry around with them the goods they need (or imagine they would need) to make a home.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014