Street Stories NYC: “I’m old-school not old-fashioned”

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07/14/2008 12:01 PM |

This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column in which she interviews the homeless and street people she meets around New York City. This week she spoke with Arnold, 47, whom she met in the East Village.

I met Arnold in front of the bar D.B.A. on First Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets. He was trying to get some change out of a crowd of chain-smoking patrons on the sidewalk, and as I walked by he was demonstrating the ‘flip chart’ that he had fashioned out of a cardboard box divider. I asked if I could interview him. "Do you want me to stand on my head?" he asked. "Why not?" I answered. So Arnold put down his beer and stood on his head.

(standing on his head)

I’m very impressed!

I’m very flexible.

(After our sidewalk headstand photo shoot, we sat down to talk briefly.)

I like your sign.

I got NYU interns to help me with this sign. I designed it, I was going to patent it, but they said to copyright it. A copyright lasts longer.

Where are you from?

Originally? Pennsylvania. But I spent my whole adult life in New York. I came to New York when I was 18 years old. That was my graduation gift from my mother and father, to come here for two weeks. I was impressed with the sight of the Essex Hotel from Central Park; I always wanted to see it. When I was landing in JFK I said, "Honey, I’m here!" That was 29 years ago. I lived with my aunt and uncle.

I’m old-school not old-fashioned. Old-fashioned is strict, like my mother; old-school is like mid 70s early 80s. We have core values from the old days. In today’s society, it don’t mean nothin’ when they say, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ We have to train our youth. We’re not your peer group. I tell ‘em straight up: ‘I’m not your boy or your man.’

How did your parents respond when you told them you were going to stay in New York?

That’s when people had that real bad image of New York and my Momma
started cryin’. I was from one of those towns in Pennsylvania where everyone knows you–you do something wrong and your neighbor will beat your behind and you
get another one comin’ when you get home. But I was 18 and it was time to move out on my own.

What was it like living with your aunt and uncle?

Excellent. They were career people, very affluent. I mean, they have
excellent values. They taught me how to be successful in New York. I’ve
been an entreprenuer all my life. Me and my sister, we used to make
candles around Christmas time and sell them. If we made $12 a week
that was good money.

What are you doing out here now?

Currently? Look, right now I’m involved in a program that will help you
out with affordable housing through the Mayor’s initiative.

I was under the impression that the Mayor was falling short of his promise to eradicate homelessness.

Oh, no! I’m here to tell you that I’m standing up for him. He’s
standing up to his commitment! They got this place called Safe Haven
for people that don’t want to stay in a shelter. Go to DHS website and
type in Safe Haven. I’ve been in this program for a year
’cause I’m “general population.” That means it takes me longer to be
housed because I’m not a psycho or physically disabled.

Do you know Eddie?
(Eddie’s a man in a wheelchair who panhandles on Houston Street, who I interviewed months ago)

Yeah. I tried talkin’ to him. I known him a long time. I tried to
encourage him to get into one of those outreach vans. It’s a matter of
trust. You have to build up trust with them.

My main reason for being homeless is because I’m in the non-profit
field as a volunteer administrator. We got a $50 stipend, sometimes
$100. I was staying with friends but they didn’t respect me.

I worked in outreach services, referrals. I have articles written about
me. Most people don’t even know what I’m going through. It’s been

How often do you do this on the street for change?

Once or twice a week to tide me over, because I’m part of this housing
program and I’m receiving public assistance. It’s part of the housing
program. I’d like a job, but they say realistically when you’re in
transitional housing it’s hard to keep a job. They want you to first have a
regular income, then get stable, and once you get housing you can have a
steady job.

The agency that’s helping me is called Common Ground. I wanna tell you,
they’re doing a fantastic job. They are amazing. I give them 4 stars. I
really think God has prepared me to go down and come up.

But I heard that in some places people sleep sitting up in folding chairs….

I heard through the grape vine they’re getting ready to close a
lot of the drop-in centers. People are getting sick a lot. Their legs
are swelling up.

The Bowery Redevelopment Committee has a Safe Haven at Christmastime–they take you and your kids to Toys R Us. I was on the street and I met
one of the buyers. Bloomberg has a heart for those in need–I’m talking
about my experience. He has no ego. He has the heart of the city. He’s
genuine, in my opinion, as a community service provider.

It takes time, I tell you. The people on the street are so resistant
because of past experience. Through love, kindness and general
respect they will come in, but people don’t come in until they’ve been
down, beaten and up against the wall. But they’re taking care of me. I’ve got to go now, but I’ll keep in touch.

God is good, see, ‘cause you’re genuine and I’m for real.