Wednesday, May 20, 2009

4 East 15th Street, New York, New York

      I was in New York and staying with a friend of Susan's who told me to go left when I left her front gate and then walk across to the Farmer's Market. Since I was strangely disoriented, very strangely, I needed instructions on how to get anywhere and I did just what she said. As I was walking across 15th St., I passed a barricade of suitcases and carts and glanced at it. A man with a ruddy face was sleeping there. He looked like a farmer, large and capable, covered by a blue blanket. 
     Much later in the afternoon, I walked by again and noticed that he'd awakened, made a blanket hood to hide his face and had a pack of cigarettes lying next to him. The smell of urine was pervasive.
     That was Saturday. 
     The next day it threatened rain and I wondered how he would manage to protect his mattresses and belongings, wondered whether he was going to lie in bed until the rain began. But when as I crossed Fifth Avenue, I could see that his belongings had been consolidated, that the mattresses were folded and the carts pushed against the elevator structure that had served as his headboard. There's no telling where he had gone.
      His address had been 4 East 15th Street, but on Monday his make-shift home was gone. The only trace of it was a cigarette pack, the same brand that I'd noticed on his blanket, tucked into a corner of the window ledge. And the large gray push card was still there, almost cleaned out. 
      I think he'd had two mattresses, one buttressed against the building, the other tucked against his partitioning. But they were gone, his broom was gone, all the suitcases had vanished. The area was swept clean. I couldn't help myself. I had to look into the bin to see if there was any evidence of his presence left.
     When I lived in New York, there were derelicts on the Bowery, and men wandering in and out of the Dorothy Day house for homeless men near where the Hell's Angels lived on Second Street near Second Avenue. But there was nothing, nothing, like the level of homelessness there is now. If it was ordinary to see men sleeping in doorways near that loft where my daughter, her father and I lived right after she was born, it wasn't ordinary to see them sleeping near Fifth Avenue in a neighborhood that was considerably better.
     I understand some of the issues of homelessness in Boston, having worked some in the women's section of a shelter. Once the state mental institutions were closed and patients had been released, supposedly, to residential living and, after the many rooming houses had been sold for private residences, there was an exponential increase in the number of people who were homeless and in shelters or living on the streets.  
     I can't know whether the man who'd made a bedroom so resourcefully has a social worker who has helped him get some services. I have no way of knowing whether he's one of the many who refuse medication because they hate the side-effects or are afraid of going to doctors and afraid of sleeping in shelters which seem far more dangerous to them than being on the streets. And I don't know who was paid to toss out all his belongings and sweep away his traces.

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