He has a brown bag with a 40's bottle to his mouth and is shouting at anybody who would listen "My life sucks, but I love it, it's the only one I got!". The 40-something year old broken record of a Chicano on Church Avenue, repeats his sentence as though he himself acknowledges the poetry of it, and is satisfied with how concisely he has been able to describe his life in the brief open narrative. I have been paying more attention to the homeless people in my neighborhood in recent months, and the fact that I see these very specific people at least four times a week, has made them a troubling part of my environment.
There is the young man with the black and red jacket, and the nike's to match, exposing his bone at the ankle. The story is that his mother lives on my street corner and she put him out because of drugs. On average twice a month he calls out to me and laughs with a sustained giggle when I don't respond to him. Honestly, I am afraid of him, since I see him at least once a day and he does not say much. I have understood that the quiet ones are those who purge in the most radical of ways, and usually avoid him when I can.
There is the man with the balding scalp who asks only for dollar bills. The fear I have for him is different. I have seen him everywhere, which is unlike this city. You barely see the same people twice. I have seen him at three restaurants in my neighborhood, just outside my campus, once inside the grocery and one evening on the train. All within the space of three months. He has a very personalized way in asking for money and I started wondering at one time if he actually knows my face and targets me. Bell Hooks in her discussion of Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition mentions "the notion of manipulative performance for survival". He begs so discreetly that you think it is a private matter between you and him alone, which has some type of emotional effect on the way people generally respond to him.
Hooks explains that these homeless people "are possessed spirits. In another culture- not a while supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal nation- their words might be listened to, their wisdom heeded." This sentiment reminded me very much of an experience Ryan and I had in the Eastern Cape, while waiting for our fifteen hour bus-ride back to Joburg. This old homeless man came up to us, speaking as much English as he could extract, and asks Ryan for money. Upon receipt of a few rand, he proceeds to give us advice for our relationship, and the importance of fidelity. He had approached only us out of the group of people there, and spoke at length on how we should live our married life. He ends his spiel by talking about Barcelona and Manchester United football teams with Ryan. It was as though with the transaction he felt indebted to us in some way and worked to compensate with his story. The old man walked a few steps up the street and it was as though he disappeared completely. We scanned the area for him a mere thirty seconds after he left us, and he was nowhere in sight.
All these examples tie into an internal conflict of wanting to engage people but being afraid of what they are capable of. I would even add that my being a woman has mostly raised my perceived risk level, these are people who are still out on the street when I am walking home late at night. I cannot be naive about the city and its monsters. But, what if they are not the monsters? And which one of them is Christ? I am caught daily wanting to help people, but I have never before been so aware of death and violence as probability since I moved to Brooklyn. My thoughts for now have been laid out, but not finished.
Also, this has been a wonderful project in Trinidad that works to capture the stories of the homeless, please check it out:
- Let's Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance Edited by Catherine Ugwu Bay Press 1995