Welcome to Street Stories NYC–our weekly column in which contributor Jessica Hall interviews the street and homeless people she meets in the city. This week she spoke with Robert Rushin, 59, whom she met in Union Square.
Where are you from?
I’m from New York City, I left in ’65 for LA with my mother and sister because my father was abusive and a tyrant, so we went to live with my grandmother, who was another tyrant. Her name was Big Red, she was one of the first black women in the Air Force, and she helped break the Navajo code.
My mother was one of the few blacks in the University of Minnesota in the 40s. She studied nursing, and when she got tired of it she decided to follow her sister to New York â€˜cause she thought it was more fun and there was more going on in a big city.
I’m a musician and street performer. I play electronic keyboard, electronic sax–that’s a digital horn. Mostly I play recorders. You know, the flutes, in the subway here at Union Square. I play in Brooklyn a lot, sometimes in Queens. It’s a lot of effort. I used to work 16 hours a day, going back and forth to different spots and sleep on the subway between appearances. In the subway you get a better rapport with the crowds. It’s a lot of effort to play good enough for people to listen to you. I only do it on occasion now, a couple days a week.
How long have you been homeless?
Flophouses are in the Bowery, but the Bowery’s being gentrified now
because it’s become very valuable property. There used to be 60,000
homeless in the Bowery every day. Slowly but surely they’re moving them
In the heyday there were 35-40 flophouses. They charged $1-$2 a day,
then it went up to $4. Now the few they got left are $10-$15 a day. If
you can get in.
How do you get in?
You gotta ask. It’s a big system. They used to all be very prejudiced
and not accept black people and minorities. One is called the
Whitehouse just because of that, it was only white people, it’s still
there. There’s a flophouse called Saint Andrews. They still won’t let
black people in. And the Sunshine Hotel, they’re trying to sell it now.
They used to call me the â€˜Sue Man’ because â€˜cause I took â€˜em to court
so often and I won. I got a lot of money from them. They tried to evict
me a bunch of times. They’re supposed to supply locks, and they don’t
keep it up like they should, and even though I took them to court they
didn’t do all the repairs. All of â€˜em–Sunshine, Whitehouse,
Providence, Sun Hotel–basically they didn’t comply with the law.
How has gentrification of the Bowery affected you?
It’s been devastating. There’s not many places you can go.
Why are you homeless?
That’s involved. I first came back to New York in an obstinate huff. I couldn’t stand LA. I was living in Compton, you heard of it? I wasn’t in with any of the
black people there. They weren’t into talent–well, they got muscle
talent. But I was into music, and speaking. I won 15 awards for public speaking. I came in 6th in country in the Expository Speaking Nationals in Miami.
That’s a very promising beginning.
A lot of people thought I’d be in politics or a lawyer â€˜cause I had such a promising start.
I became a hippie and got tired of school and work and became a “peace
love sex and drugs” type. After the peace and love I found yoga.
How did you find yoga?
Listening to The Beatles.
You were ahead of your time.
I think yoga puts you ahead of your time. You see through the illusions
that you’re suffering under. I went through my first big realization
when I dropped acid and I started crying because I saw how wild and
evil people are and I saw all this energy in their faces. You have to learn to adapt, to be survival-ready and existentially
aware of what you need to do–where you wanna be and where you’re at.
You have to see if the religion you believe in is a system of
repression–patriarchal, matriarchal or a self-worship system where the
guy is getting you to worship him and vampyring your energy making you
think he’s a god.
How there’s very little freedom and so much power and control. You have
very little free minded-ness. You’re like a reactive drone. You’re
Pavlovian, at 9 o’ clock you gotta make that coffee and go to work, you
don’t have any time to think about your family or your political
affiliation, your health, yourself.
Is the only answer to be homeless?
No, but I’m getting to that. They have wandering Ascetics and they
don’t participate or have any focus but their general aim, if you can
call it that, what they’re trying to do is find God. A non-aimed method
of attaining truth, using a process of elimination. You eliminate
everything until you find what’s left and when you find what’s left you
obviously have what it is.
I liked Ravi Shankar since I was a little kid because my mom used to
take me to the movie club and there were these three tremendous movies,
The Pather Panchali Trilogy. It’s about a young man on a spiritual
path. Personally I went through the same thing as everyone who’s on a
spiritual path. To reach discovery and develop their inner capacity.
For the longest time I thought that Christ was just a story they were
telling people, but then I learned that he’s very influential, like
Charlemagne, Mohammed, Napoleon, Beethoven, Krishna and Buddha, who
were all real people.
What have you learned?
That in yoga they’re more like the life of a vagabond or a gypsy and
they don’t lend to societal industrial use of time. They’re more
Basically, the thing is, when I came back to New York I got immediately
ripped off and I was really cast out into the streets and I had to
learn how to live.
Your life is a spiritual journey and you are learning to remember and
be more morally advanced and concentrate on learning because we all
Is there anything else you want to say?
Stay alert, people–you’re got Karma. Do good, be good, take care of
yourself and the environment. Eventually there will be a day of
atonement. We’re on a hell-bound train. Every man is God, every person
is God. No one is responsible for you.