This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column, in which she interviews the homeless and street people she meets around the city. This week she spoke with Mathew, 50.
Why are you proud to be an American?
I’m proud to be an American because I have certain rights that I would never have in other countries. I have the right to say what I want and not to be thrown in jail for it. I can practically dress any way I want, with the exception of being naked, without being thrown in jail.
What I don’t like about New York is they make it seem like such a wonderful place, but if you took a tour at night you’d see people digging through the garbage for food, and if you went to the subway you’d see the mole people. In a city like this no one should be eating out of the garbage can, and no one who is mentally insane should be walking the streets. And for some reason you have people who need medical care who don’t get it.
What’s important to me is the election coming up, and what’s important to me is that there be no war. Before you go tell someone else what to do, you have to take care of things at home. Before things get better they’re gonna get a whole lot worse.
What was it like for you growing up?
I’m a person who was born with cerebral palsy, and I come from a family of 11—8 boys and 3 girls. For me it was great because my grandmother helped me to understand it really didn’t matter what my condition was and I had to be able to support myself and become responsible and not to depend on the government for anything.
When it was summer and we were young we had to be in bed at 6 o’clock
and the sun was still out. Our house was the neighborhood house, so
there was always somebody around; we had friends over, and family
outings where my father would pack the stuff in the station wagon and
we would go.
How could all 11 of you fit in the station wagon?
He would say, "Squeeze up. Squeeze up."
Where did you go?
Mostly fishing. Me and my brothers weren’t allowed to fish, so we would
dig for worms because my grandmother believed everyone could contribute
something. As a matter of fact, my early 20s to my 30s I worked for the
government at the Department of General Services.
Where did you go to high school?
I went to Theodore Roosevelt high school in the Bronx. I have been
disabled my entire life and I always felt that everyone should
contribute. My father used to say to us, "I don’t care if you’re
crippled, blind or crazy, everyone should leave the house when I do."
For me high school was very rough. I wasn’t able to write because of
the disability, so it became very hard for me to study to take exams
and also because I was being pulled in and out of high school for
medical reasons so it was not a very good time for me.
Many times people would come up to me and ask what college I graduated
from because I speak so well. My grandmother and father taught me that
people need to understand what you’re saying. It’s not like, âYou
know." "No, I don’t know.’
I was on the train and this 11-year-old boy says, âYo, son!’ and I’m
looking around and there’s only 4 people on the train and we’re all
adults. Jesse Jackson said Ebonics is a language. Ebonics is an excuse
to be stupid.
Where are your brothers now?
Both of them live in Manhattan, but I live in upstate New York in a
town called Bergam. Anybody who knows me in this neighborhood knows me
because in 2000 I was preparing to bike cross-country. I biked with an
organization called World T.E.A.M. Sports, whose logo is "the exceptional
athlete matters." I was part of a ride called The Faces of America
where we biked from Boston to St. Louis. In 2000 I biked across the
country to raise money for Alzheimer’s. My description of the disease
is you have very good people in a very bad play and they just don’t
know how to get out.
With all your abilities, why are you asking for money on the street?
I don’t ask for money. It’s up to you, the individual to do what you
want to do. How I got here was because when I was working for the city
I got very sick because I was stressing my body for 6 1/2 years not
knowing the damage I was doing to my lower body and now I’m in need of
a hip replacement but I don’t have any cartilage so, that being the
case, I had to retire. I also had certain things going on in my life,
and when I found out my mom was sick with Alzheimer’s it helped me get
out of my funk and I realized that I had to do something to help my
mother. For 5 years I trained in the winter and summer to bike across
the country, 120 miles a day for 22 days from May 11- June 3.
And so you were here fundraising?
I was, but before that with the money I used to take in I would feed the homeless who otherwise wouldn’t eat.
How would you find them?
You don’t have to find them, they come to you. Most people say that
because a person is dirty and smelly they’re homeless, but there are
some people who are homeless who are not dirty and smelly.
Is that why you’re doing this now?
No. Now I’m doing it because I’m starting a business where people who
need someone to talk to can call me. They can yell, kick, and scream.
The name of the website is youwant2talk.com.
Who do you call when you need to talk to someone?
I call on God. That’s it.
Have you noticed a difference since the Americans with Disabilities Act?
No. Not at all.
Not more accessibility?
I find it much more difficult, except for the fact that there are some
curved corners on the sidewalk. Is that a big accomplishment? Just like
they fixed up the train station, but why do they have so many steps in
the train station? Don’t they realize they’re going to be old some day?
Tomorrow you could be the person on the street and not even know how you got there.
If I were homeless, which, thank God, I am not, I wouldn’t go to a
homeless shelter if you gave it to me. At one time I wanted to see what
it would be like to be homeless, just to see if it were as bad as they
say it is, and it’s worse. The rats are the size of dogs and they’ll
steal your underwear off you while you’re sleeping. I wouldn’t
advise anyone to go there.
What has been your greatest challenge?
To help people understand that what they look at as being a beggar and
a panhandler is not so because I’m not asking you and I’m not begging
There were these two NYU students, girls, who would walk by me every
day, and one day they walked by and I was on the phone, and they said,
"The nerve, he has a cell phone!" They just assumed. They didn’t ask
"Why do you have that phone?"
I had the phone because I needed to talk to my wife and other people who were concerned about me.
Where is your wife now?
She’s upstate. Hopefully I’ll be there soon too.
Do you have children?
I have two and she has two. They’re grown. I have a son who lives here and a daughter in Florida.
I’m a person just like everybody else, and I’m just trying to survive.