This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column, in which she interviews the street and homeless people she meets around the city. This week she spoke with Robert L., "either a very old or very young 39," who she met as he was panhandling from cars along 10th Street between Broadway and Third Avenue.
What are you reading? (He has a magazine in his hand.)
The New Yorker, latest issue. I just finished reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky for the third time. Now I’m reading Henry James, The Cage. I’m a bibliophile.
What are you doing out here?
The company I worked for went under. I went to receive my benefits and I found out my family was using my social security number to collect whatever they could. So it looked like I as working while I was receiving benefits and that’s not good.
I worked for a limousine company for well over 16 years. I was doing well. The last company I worked for didn’t recover after 9/11. Then my fiancé died.
She was sicker than I realized, she had a nervous break down and the medicine required for her, she would have reactions to it. It was just, she was sicker than I knew at the time. Between the stress of me losing my job and everything and I was taking care of us and my family, I always took care of my family.
My friends always warned me, â€˜They’re using you.’ But I said, â€˜You don’t understand, we’re family, this is what we do for each other.’
How long have you been out here?
How have you been surviving?
I go to the drop-in centers for food and showers. If it wasn’t for taxi drivers I’d die out here.
I was selling my artwork on the street and thanks to the NYPD they
constantly, constantly were throwing out my art supplies and my work.
I’ve been arrested for it and threatened for it. Some of these young
people out here think it’s a freedom of speech issue. It’s not; it’s a
business issue. They want the 15 cents on the dollar.
I’m supposed to wear an eye patch and they threw away my medicine for my eye.
I came back one day and my girl was crying because they threw
everything away. I’m not looking to go to Rikers for stealing corn
flakes and a box of tampons. You know? A guy’s down on his luck, at least I’m trying to do the right thing.
What about the shelters?
I really try to avoid them if at all possible. Out of six maybe seven shelters I found one that was tolerable. The ones in midtown, the Open Door and whatnot, those places are madhouses, they’re dangerous, jailhouse mentality is rampant. My girl almost lost her eye in there. There was one I had to go and get drunk and claim I had a drinking problem just to stay there. You have to have a problem to go there. I’d get help right now if I was a drug addict or alcoholic. When I look too good I don’t get any help.
What I can’t stand is the sign-in. Wake up — sign in. Breakfast — sign in. Go out — sign in, Come back — sign in, Lunch — sign in, shower — sign in, towel — sign in. They have you sign for every little thing because they get money for every signature. We are not human beings out here, we’re numbers and those numbers translate to dollars. What will they benefit from putting me in housing where I can’t sign any more?
Idiot me, I’m following because I think I’m going to get what I deserve before I wind up being that toothless crack addict on the corner â€˜cause I’m really going nuts here.
When I was living at the shelter I’d still volunteer. One of the things I did was pick up the extra food and clothing donations from the corporations. By the time it got back to us — let me put it this way, there’d be three trays of sushi and I’d say, "Do you think since I went to get it I can have some of that?" and they’d say, "Oh, no it’s not safe to eat."
And with the clothes I’d say, "Do you think since I went to pick that up I could see if there’s an extra pair of pants?" Because I know there was more in those boxes besides a couple Frankie Says Relax and Bart Simpson t-shirts and some old shorts.
This is it for me. It’s turned me into a person I don’t like and physically it’s killing me.