SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER

06/18/09 1:00pm

When I met Lesia Pupshaw, she was one of the ubiquitous young crusty punks panhandling on Saint Mark’s Place. As with the homeless who pepper the city’s streetscape, the “crustys” are tolerated, if often disdained. At times they may elicit guilt, pity, empathy, anger or a combination of these things.

Although she could live with her mother in the apartment she grew up in on 6th Street, Lesia told me she chose not to, because her mom was a “ginormous” alcoholic. Lesia, whose teeth were little black stubs due to her use of crystal meth, said she wanted to be a nurse, and admired her half sister, who is married with children in California.

The night of May 8th, according to eyewitness accounts related to police and reported in the Villager and elsewhere, Lesia was attacked by a gang of three or four teenage boys, reportedly Hispanic kids from Avenue D. They threw glass bottles at her, hitting her on the head. When Lesia collapsed, they beat her on the head with what may have been a metal rod, or possibly an aluminum baseball bat. She went to the emergency room, but was sent home. She went to sleep at her mother’s that night, and never woke up.

Friends say the casket was closed at the wake because her head was so badly beaten.

On a recent weekend, I went to talk to her friends in Tompkins Square Park. They were easy to find, as the crustys take over rows of benches, spreading out with their assortment of dirty backpacks, dogs and garbage.

I asked a girl — sporting facial piercings, matted brown hair pulled to the sides in Pippy Longstocking fashion and overalls stiff with dirt — if she witnessed the attack on Lesia. Although droopy-eyed, she was friendly and helpful, and began asking around. No one seemed to have been with Lesia the night of the attack, but a girl with bright green eyes and long black hair approached me, saying, “I heard you give $25 for an interview.” When I told her that was not the case she shrugged her shoulders, saying, “I used to go to catholic school with her. The nuns were sad ’cause she was a normal girl who got high a lot and went a little crazy.” A short guy with stringy shoulder-length hair and teeth stained red asked me if I was writing a story on heroin, “’cause I’m an addict.” He added, “They can never get rid of the heroin around here.”

They told me that a local homeless man named Markey had been attacked by the same group of kids. When I found Markey, he confirmed that his description of the kids matched eyewitness accounts of Lesia’s attackers.

The attackers, according to Markey, are a gang of three or four kids from the projects on Avenue D — one, he guesses, could be as young as 13. They have attacked Markey on three separate occasions. The last time, they came up behind him, hit him over the head and taunted him, “Hey, we beat you up before!”

“Put in your story how broke up I was when I went to her wake,” Markey told me. “She was 26 years old, that’s half my age. It ain’t right, it just ain’t right.”

A photo of Markey’s bruised, beaten and bloody face has been posted on Neither More Nor Less, the website of local blogger Bob Arihood, who spends his nights on Avenue A documenting the street drama and inevitable conflicts between the Avenue’s revelers and underclass. Among recent posts reporting on neighborhood violence is an account of “a group of 10 to 15 young Hispanic, black and white males” who attacked a man who was walking back from a bar with his girlfriend.

For his part, Markey has recovered and, due in part to Bob’s posting, has been picked up by the Department of Homeless Services, who were quick to provide him with a room in a safe haven.

As I was talking with the crustys and punks in the park, I noticed a boy sitting on the bench wearing a hot pink silk skirt, knee-high black-and-white striped stockings and a hooded army jacket. His lips were smeared with red lipstick, which ran down at the corners. As I was standing there, a cleancut young white man came out of nowhere and grabbed him, shaking him by his collar. The girl I was talking to, with the help of a couple other crustys, pulled him off. “Don’t you see there’s kids around here?” she yelled at him.

As I left the park, the boy in the skirt careened ahead of me, headed east on 7th Street, alternately angrily kicking over garbage cans and asking people for a dollar. He was on his way to the corner bodega for a fortified beer, which the owner keeps conveniently stacked in cases by the door. He was immediately spotted by a group of young Hispanic men sitting on a stoop about mid-block. They intercepted him at the corner, pushing him away from the bodega, and as he continued to try to push his way past, one of them punched him in the jaw. The kid stumbled across the street in front of the German beer bar on the corner, its sidewalk overflowing with the weekend brunch crowd, who laughed and pointed as he violently overturned the trashcan on the corner.

Following him along Avenue C, I asked, “Why are you so angry?” He stopped and looked at me, his arms hanging limply by his side. “Because,” he explained in a hoarse voice, “my mother was a lesbian and they wouldn’t let her keep her kid and so she killed herself.” He sniffled and swayed as big tears began to roll down his dirt-smeared cheeks. “Why do people keep hitting me? My face hurts,” he sobbed, rubbing his jaw. “I just want to be free!”

Friends describe Lesia as a sweet girl who had recently kicked heroin, though reports on Neither More No Less suggested she had been using prior to the attack. For the police’s part, Dennis de Quatro, commanding officer of the Ninth Precinct, told the Villager that the attack had been ruled out as the cause of Lesias death: “The woman definitely did not die of any injuries she sustained in the altercation.” The investigation, however, is still ongoing, and the Medical Examiner’s office still has not announced a cause of death. Neither the Medical Examiners office nor the Ninth Precinct has yet responded to my requests for comment, or issued a statement as to the cause of death. It may simply be more convenient for the police to deny any link between Lesia’s death and the beating she sustained just hours before.

Other victims of assaults downtown, such as Dougie Bowne, a musician who was attacked in April in the West Village, have been discouraged by the police from filing a report. Dougie was on his way home from a show and standing on the corner of West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue when a van stopped in front of him. The doors flew open to reveal a flashing disco ball as a group of large men engaged in a brawl tumbled out of the van. As Dougie tried to extricate himself from the situation, he was hit on the back of the head by one of the “revelers,” rendering him unconscious. Dougie called the police, who met him at the emergency room that night; but when he went to the Sixth Precinct the following day to file a report, the desk sergeant merely shrugged — “What’s the point?” — because Dougie couldn’t tell them who assaulted him. “The point is,” Dougie said to me, “had they taken a report the night before, it was a 40-foot land yacht, you know?”

Perhaps the point, as far as the police are concerned, is to try to keep the reported numbers of violent assaults — already on a steep rise — under control. In the Ninth Precinct, which is the area in and around Tompkins Square Park, reported assaults have risen over 27% since last year. In the Sixth, where Dougie was assaulted, there has been an almost 43% increase in assaults, according to the NYPD’s CompStat Unit.

More bars and less income may be contributing to mounting tensions in downtown Manhattan. While a recent New York Magazine article optimistically theorized that the recession will make us all kinder to one another, a recent Post dispatch reported on the increase in assaults downtown, which Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne attributed the increase to the bar scene. When I spoke with Bob Arihood, he speculated that, “Most of the reported assaults are in front of bars for legal reasons… [Bar owners make them] to protect themselves.”

Assaults on the homeless, crustys and punks often go unreported. And as Dougie’s case shows, even when a “regular” person wants to report an assault they may be discouraged from doing so.

When I was talking to the crustys in Tompkins Square Park, I mentioned my concern over the recent rise in assaults. “Yeah,” the girl in the overalls said. “A friend of mine was sleeping over by the river and some kids took her backpack, set it on fire, and put it under her. Another friend of mine had his throat slashed right here in the park. It just missed the jugular, he was sitting there, like, bleeding, and nobody did anything about it.”

Said a skinny kid perched atop the benches, “If you’re homeless it rightly don’t matter.”

06/04/08 12:00am

For about eight months, I’ve been conducting weekly interviews of New York City’s homeless  for my column on The L Magazine’s website. With the exception of one man, every person who I’ve asked about city shelters has told me that they’re so miserable they’d rather stay on the street. During one interview, a man suggested that I put on some crummy clothes and go see what it’s like for myself. I took it a step further, and, to make a comparison, spent a night on the street as well. Another subject of mine, J, was very eager to assist me.

J was right on time to meet me in the park, 6pm sharp. It was raining lightly. He admired my outfit: a beat up old biker jacket with studs and hand-painted decoration, black sweat pants, old sneakers, a kerchief and a hat. I had an old, broken-down shopping cart with blankets, clothes, bottled water and makeup. We walked downtown in the rain, along the East River. Before going to his regular sleeping spot, J took me to a food drop where a truck was coming to give away food, serve hot soup and distribute blankets and clothes. We found a small group of people congregated under the trees at the edge of the park,  all of them waiting for the truck. J wanted to separate; he thought it better not to be seen with me because people would have too many questions. It was raining harder, and my feet were soaked, so I pulled out my umbrella and stood alone, waiting. There were a few other white people, mostly old men with matted hair and greasy pants pushing shopping carts, but most of the people waiting were black or Latino.

A tall, handsome and well put-together man approached me. “You look too good to be out here.” 
“So do you.” 
“You look good in those pants.” 
“Listen, what the fuck are you doing out here hitting on me while you’re standing around in the rain waiting for a free sandwich?” 
He smiled at me. “You wanna go out to dinner sometime?” 
“How are you gonna to take me out to dinner?” 
“When I get my unemployment check, that’s how. I’m gonna take you to dinner and a movie by 42nd Street.” 
“Get lost.” 
He wandered off, but came back moments later. “If you wanna go to the movies, meet me here at the next run, June 3.”

Finally, a yellow truck arrived, followed by a van with the volunteers. They piled out and one of the men shouted, “Whatever they want, give it to them! If they want ten lunches, give it to them!” The crowd fell on the boxes before they hit the sidewalk. There was a family — parents and three children. The kids ducked under the adults to grab bags full of food and dragged them triumphantly back to their parents.

Two young volunteers in bright sweatshirts ladled hot chicken noodle soup into cups. I reached my hand out from under my umbrella for a cup, which came as a warm and welcome relief. I hadn’t realized how tense the damp had made me.

When we got everything we could from the truck, we headed off to J’s spot. He told me he had been living at this location on a small side street in the Wall Street area for years. He selected it, he said, because there was private security and the cops didn’t come through. The narrow street was lined with mountains of trash and recycling. We got to his spot, about mid-block, which was, in fact, just a doorway, barely wide enough to fit in and not long enough for stretching out. “This is it,” J said.

In front of the building next to his doorway was a scaffold; he pulled a couple milk crates under it and we sat watching the rainfall in the misty lamplight. It smelled like wet concrete. There was a construction site next door, and J showed me a spot to pee in, a drain behind a cluster of dumpsters. “And I can show you how to do number two later,” he offered. I nodded, but I had no intention of taking a crap in the street, regardless of the technique. J regaled me for hours with tales of incarceration, his work on a chain gang and his participation in various “historical uprisings,” the details of which he requested I not include in my story. The later it got the more animated he became. Finally, as J was explaining animal magnetism to me, and the dynamics of predator and prey, I suggested that we go to sleep. We grabbed some soggy cardboard from a pile across the street. He made a kind of cardboard crib in his doorway and offered it to me, but I said I’d take the doorway at the barbershop, where I then laid out my own layers of cardboard.

“Not bad at all!” he smiled. “Do you have any food in your cart? Give it to me.” 
I pulled out my bag of food and he hung it on the scaffold. “I don’t even want to tell you about the size of some of the beavers down here,” he said as he chuckled. Later that night when I went to pee I noticed, as my bare ass hung over the drain, dozens of rats and mice frolicking in the night.

J said that since the following day was Saturday, we could look forward to “sleeping in,” but I never really slept. I was hyper-aware of every sound and smell. A whiff of cigarette smoke implied the imminence of a stranger; the sounds of scratching indicated the proximity of rodents. I found myself thinking that someone could attack me just for kicks, and that the rats might mistake me for a bag of garbage. Besides those concerns, there was an endless parade of gigantic garbage trucks roaring down the tiny street.

I didn’t dare stretch out my legs, and I was curled up into myself in an effort to keep warm, but even with my two pairs of pants and a blanket, the dampness seeped through. I felt stiff — no amount of cardboard could cushion that concrete. I couldn’t wait for morning. At around 6:30am workers started showing up next door. I didn’t want to make eye contact with them. I felt embarrassed to be getting “out of bed” in a doorway. Luckily J had to get up to pee, so we packed up and went to a deli where he bought us coffee. It was becoming a beautiful, sunny day. We made for the park and finally I got to sleep on my blanket spread out in the sun.

We spent the day wandering around drinking coffee, and J never ran out of stories: he used to write for the paper, he used to have a townhouse on Central Park and two buildings on Houston Street, he told me about the Greeks, the Romans and the Moors, he said the end was coming: “Babylon is going to fall and I’m going to have a lot of company out here.”

Later in the afternoon, J showed me where to panhandle, at the corner of Pearl and Wall Streets. There was a constant stream of tourists. I sat on my coat reading a book and scribbling in my notepad. I made 25 cents in an hour. J told me I had to jiggle my cup, but I felt so self-conscious and vulnerable that I really didn’t want to interact with the public.

As miserable and difficult as that night was, with the steady rain, the cold, the noise and the complete lack of privacy, it wasn’t as bad as the night I spent in the drop-in center. I was taken there by an outreach team, two ladies in a maroon minivan who picked me up from the park where I was visiting with a previous interview subject who’d found me there by chance. He was walking through the park, “looking for people I like,” as he said. When the outreach workers approached, he requested a couples’ shelter for the two of us, even though we’d been sitting together for less than an hour. I took the ladies aside and asked to be taken to a women’s shelter.

After a short drive, we pulled over to a building in Midtown. From the outside it looked hopeful, with large windows filled with plant boxes. As we approached the door I asked the outreach worker about the group of ladies hovering under the scaffold of the neighboring building. Some of them were smoking, some were just standing clutching shopping bags. They looked like a pretty sad bunch. “They’re just from the neighborhood,” she said, as I followed her into the center. The first thing I thought, looking around the high-ceilinged room filled with shabbily clad women and their assortment of bags, was that they’d created this scene as a disincentive to stay at a shelter: it was bleak. There were lockers in the back and showers near the front door next to the lone bathroom, where women waited in a constant line. The bathroom walls didn’t reach the ceiling and were covered by a flimsy plastic grid, doing little to mask the foul odor.

I noticed a stairway in the middle of the room, which I assumed led to where we were going to sleep — after all, I’d asked to be taken to a shelter. As it turned out, our “beds” were comprised of the two metal folding chairs that were given out to each woman. They were impossible to sleep on. Those women who were able to quietly settle down slid sleepily off their chairs throughout the evening, and those who didn’t stayed up most or all of the night, talking to themselves or pacing around the tiled floors. My chairs were in a corner near a bucket filled with dirty water and an open drain in the floor. Electrical cables protruded from the walls, and the electrical box was uncovered.

The majority of the women in the center seemed mentally ill. Although a sign on the wall said that clients had to bathe every other day, many of the women, including the one sleeping less than a foot away from me, were covered in a visible layer of dirt and, judging from the smell, had not bathed in weeks. The whole set-up seemed crazy to me, and I got out of there at 5am. No one said a word to me as I left.

•  •  •  •  •

When I got home, I called Patrick Markee, Senior Research Analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. I wanted to ask him about the 1981 Consent Decree, which established the constitutional right to shelter in New York State. The decree was the result of a class action suit brought by the co-founder of the coalition, Robert Hayes, in 1979. In part, the decree says that the right to shelter includes a bed, clean bedding and a pillow. I asked him if the decree could be used to force centers where homeless individuals spend the night to provide beds. He explained that as I was in a drop-in center and not a shelter, the consent decree did not apply. “But isn’t that just a matter of semantics?” I asked. “If I say I need shelter, and I’m taken to a drop-in center, is that my fault? That’s not what I asked for.” He said that the outreach workers should have explained it better to me. But I was surprised at his defensive attitude toward the description of my experience. He cautioned me against judging the center too harshly, and blamed Mayor Bloomberg for abandoning his ten-year Action Plan, “Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter,” which declares itself a “multi-sector strategy to address these (homeless) concerns and strengthen the city’s response.” A 41-member coordinating committee, along with hundreds of task force participants and experts, convened between November 2003 and April 2004 to produce a strategy to address homelessness. The resulting plan is an impressive, comprehensive, multi-faceted strategy to eradicate homelessness in New York City. So why isn’t it being fully implemented?

The Coalition for the Homeless reports that in 2007 about 35,000 people slept in homeless shelters each night. Even more distressing is the number of homeless families, over 9,000, that resided in shelters every night. There’s no question that the city and all the agencies serving the homeless understand what needs to be done: affordable housing, section 8, housing vouchers, the creation of supportive housing for those individuals who aren’t capable of living independently, coordinating city services and providing people with ‘housing first’ rather than requiring they be ‘housing ready’ before getting them off the street — and, most importantly, holding the mayor accountable. The introduction of the Action Plan states, in part, “Street homelessness should not be accepted as a fact of city life. Today it is.”

After my homeless weekend, the idea that any person is choosing to exist under the hardship and humiliation of being homeless is absurd to me. Prior to my weekend, I’d actually believed that some people were making that choice. One of my recent subjects, a young girl, said to me, “Most people who you see on the street asking for money or anything like that… it doesn’t make them a bad person — they’re obviously lost, and if you have the means to help them you should.”  •

To get involved contact the Coalition for the Homeless at coalitionforthehomeless.org

03/19/08 12:00am

For “Street Stories NYC,” her weekly column at thelmagazine.com, contributor Jessica Hall interviews the homeless and street people she meets around the city. She’s chosen a few of the most compelling interviews to be included here. While a nearly two-decade long municipal effort to deal with homelessness by criminalizing poverty has, superficially, changed the character of NYC (some would say sanitized it), stark iniquity remains.

Diane, 37
I was walking through Penn Station at rush hour when I came across Diane, who was there to check on a friend who was also homeless in Penn Station.

What are you doing here?
  Believe it or not I got stories. A lot of them. It’s rough out here.

Where did you grow up?
  In Brooklyn. I lived with my mother and my father. My father was an alcoholic and he constantly beat on my mother. He worked in a gas station and he’d buy beer after work, get drunk and beat my mother up. Till I was nine, and then my mother finally went to school to become a bookkeeper and she got remarried. Then I got pregnant at 14. Then I got pregnant again, and when my second baby was three months old I got pregnant again. Me and the dad lived in an apartment in Brooklyn for 14 years. I left him. He was a father, a provider. He’d get money, get drunk. He punctured my eardrum. He knocked all my teeth out. So finally I tired of it. I took off. I haven’t been with him for four years.

How old are you now?  I’m 37.  I’m six months pregnant.

Where have you been staying since you left your husband?  I stayed with my sister for two years, then she got married. I’ve been in the shelter system for two years. It’s been downhill. I got on drugs, heroin.

Were you using before you left your husband?  Before I left him I started on the down-low. It got me away from my problems. He kept the kids. He met this new woman and they have a house on Staten Island.

Where’s your baby’s dad?  Him? He’s a worthless bum.

Where did you meet him?  I was volunteering in the needle exchange on 37th and Eighth Avenue and I went over by the Open Door. I was handing out condoms and fliers for HIV testing and he was in the shelter. I was in the women’s shelter. Then we went to a couples’ shelter. I got pregnant and couldn’t stay there. I packed and went to a shelter in the Bronx.

Why did you leave there?  I don’t know. Everything was bothering me. I was getting annoyed.

Did you leave the shelter because you couldn’t do drugs there?  No. In the shelter people are getting high in the bathroom and dealing.

How long have you been in Penn Station?  I been here nine days.

What’s a day like down here?  I get chased all over the place. If they see you resting with your eyes closed they chase you. They gave me a ticket for sleeping on the ground at 6am. They arrested me; took me in. (While we were talking a cop came over and told us to move).

Are you still using?  That’s another thing. I’ve been to the hospital to get into detox. I shoot heroin, cocaine and smoke crack. Someone told me, what I’m taking they can’t give me nothing. One of my friends told me they only gotta take you if you’re drinking alcohol.

Why don’t  you just stop?  I was in a program. I was clean. But you get high, you know? I know I gotta stop because they’ll take the baby away from me.

Danny, 46

I approached Danny on a late Friday afternoon because I saw him sitting at a table with a huge pile of unwrapped bagels. When I spoke to him, he told me that he’s working undercover as a homeless person (“A calling by God”) to report back to the government on how to solve the homeless issue.

What are you doing here?  The mayor says he wants 70% of the homeless off the street by 2010 and I love and respect him very much. This is my answer: They don’t want to get off the street. That’s all. This (park) is my living room. I’m doing this on purpose here to make my principal report to my organization in Washington, DC. By the way, no one is dying of starvation in New York.

What is the psychology of a homeless person?  When you are outside in an area you are listed in the National Institute of Health as a human energy field ‘cause basically we’re relational light. When you put people in an enclosed area they act different than when they’re outside. When you are cooped up you go into depression. It affects your mood better to be outside. It oxygenates the body. There’s more air outside. Even though you’re homeless, you’re more alive than when you’re living in a house.

How do you think homelessness should be addressed?  I estimate the city throws away about $1 billion a month in garbage. When people move, they’re throwing out TVs, camcorders, mattresses, cameras… What I want the President to do is to get on the TV, the radio and blast, bombard, put signs everywhere, for a Homeland Security project Faith-Based Initiative to take all the household items that people don’t want, and take them all — aluminum, plastics, bottles, copper, we’re talking millions of dollars a month — and recycle everything you’re throwing away: laptops, CDs, cassettes, Christmas lights. We want ‘em cause we can sell them, and it gives homeless people a job and vocational training.

Earlier you said that homeless people don’t necessarily want a home. How do you expect to organize them?  My friends are bustin’ their butts getting bottles and cans for $20 a day. They all said they’d come to my building, they’d all work with me. I wanna shower. I wanna bed. I been shot at, punched in the head, harassed, trashed, thrashed and helped, the whole gamut of love and hate here. I’m crucified daily. Look at me. This is not an easy mission.

It would be easy for me to get a day job. But I have a mission. The other day I stopped a purse snatcher, a fist fight, I reported a sexual predator and I found a guy with his tongue hanging out, which I took to mean he was dead, so I stayed with him till the ambulance arrived. I believe we’re operating with a modern caste system.

There are different behavior models:
#1  Extreme addicts: They act in bizarre and uncontrolled ways, which makes them high risk. They’re untrackable and unpredictable. That comes from sexual abuse, unfit parents.
#2  Reclusive types: They got some horrific conditions that causes their homelessness. Like losing a parent, death of a spouse, no support systems. They’re dependent. They go into a depression and they won’t interact. They have a bizarre tendency to hoard possessions.
#3  Homeless who come from executive backgrounds who continue to work but still live on the streets.
#4  Vets who never left the war.

Where did you grow up?  I grew up on the Jersey shore. I had a golden childhood. My parents got divorced when I was in 6th grade. That’s when I got interested in super hero figures and martial arts. I ran away when I was 15. I went to Bethesda, Maryland. I had a friend whose dad was working for Nixon. That’s when I got involved in the government stuff and we went to a smoke-in for marijuana and I woke up surrounded by police in riot gear, with masks and guns, and they got my picture. My eyes were wide open. I was on an acid trip. I went home and joined the Navy. I went to underwater explosive school. I was slated to guard the president. I got busted for marijuana in ‘82, got out of the Navy and went into construction in nightclubs. I met all kinds of people. It gave me a good network at the same time it was very detrimental ‘cause I was extremely addicted to drugs and alcohol. The biggest thing I can do for repentance for my sins is to help other people and that’s why I’m working undercover.

Gigi, 48

I met Gigi while she was panhandling in front of Key Foods on Ave A and 4th Street in the East Village. She’s an incredibly sweet woman, and was very excited about our interview. We went next door to the Bagel Zone, where I knew the very nice owners would be hospitable to us. Sure enough, after we ate
they gladly gave her bills for her cup of change.

How old are you?  Forty-eight, but I know I look much older. That’s ok, I’m that much closer to the other side.

Why do you have stitches on your head?  I have water on the brain, but I call it a tumor ‘cause it’s the same damn thing to me. My story you’re not going to believe in your entire life. I have a 22-inch scar on my arm. I tell people it was a car accident. (She pulled up her shirtsleeve to reveal a long, thick scar that ran on the inside of her arm from her wrist past her elbow.) You should take a picture of it. I did this to myself. I’ll tell you why. I was 18 on the typewriter, typing my own stuff ‘cause I write, and the room went white, and in the white I saw the Revolutionary War and there were Red Coats and colonial men fighting, and then there were two men who met and were brothers. One was English and one was American. I got so scared when I saw this that I ran from the typewriter and my sister said I was white as a ghost.

I remember being two and looking in the mirror and seeing a little girl and saying, “That can’t be me.” And when I could speak I said, “Why did you bring me here, Mama?!” I remember the light, this beautiful warm light that we come from, it would embrace me, and I started telling people’s futures. I started to get things from people; this one’s cheating, that one’s controlling, and I couldn’t turn it off. I wanted to get back to the light again, so I asked my friend how I could kill myself the best and least painful way, and he said the Romans would get a razor blade and get into a warm bath, but don’t cut it this way (across the wrist) cut it that way (up the arm).

How old were you then?  When I did this I was 23. All that time between 18 and 23 I was reading people. I found people, missing people. If I see a missing person on TV, I know ‘That girl is in a lake.’ I know. If you give me a map I can tell on the map where something is. Anyway, I was dead on the table. I had to have six pints of blood. That’s how I got AIDS. When I was little my father made our lives a living hell. He was a very violent man. Christmas was always a horror. I saw him pick my mother up by the scruff of her neck and throw her against the wall. You don’t know what my mother went through. If I could, I’d take her place. She had a degree in English literature. She loved to read. We’d say, “Mommy, would you play with us?” and she’d say, “After this chapter.” It was always, “After this chapter.” Me and my sisters used to recite with her.

Who is your favorite author? Longfellow. (she recites)

I shot an Arrow into the air
It fell to earth I know not where,
For so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breath’d a Song into the air
It fell to earth, I know not where.
For who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of a song?

Long, long afterward in an oak
I found the Arrow still unbroke;
And the Song from the beginning to end
I found again in the heart of a friend.

That’s beautiful.  Yes. I love Longfellow. Me and my sister, we were like bread and butter. I used to get into the bed first to warm it up, ‘cause I was chubby and she was like a reed. She raises horses in Albuquerque now. My other sister is a billionaire. She’s filthy rich. When she looks at me, everything we went through, that rolling hell, comes back to her and she doesn’t like to see me now.

Why are we here if we have to suffer?  Oh, we suffer to learn. We’re supposed to learn how to forgive and do good things. Us doing good things, the light grows, and when we die we go into it and it gets bigger and bigger. But you can’t get to it by killing yourself.

How much do you make in a day?  I want to work, but I’m too old. I don’t have enough of everything that they want. It depends, on a good day I’ll make $40. I can’t come out all the time. This AIDS is ravaging my body.

Eddie, 57

I saw Eddie panhandling in traffic on Houston Street and Second Avenue. Eddie is a 57-year-old homeless man with one leg. He weaves in and out of traffic in his wheelchair, collecting change in a paper coffee cup.

Are you from around here?  Yes.

How long have you been panhandling here?  I’m not panhandling, I’m taking donations. Ten years. Twelve years.

Where were you before this?  Seattle, Washington; Bridgeport, Connecticut.

You get around.  Yes, man, always been a traveler.

Some people say that people who beg are taking advantage and make lots of money.  I’ve never heard of it. I mean, I have one leg.

What happened to your other leg?  Someone pushed me off a subway platform.

Did you know them?  No. The paramedics took a special unit. Took two hours to get me from under the train.

This happened in ‘97. I was in intensive care in Bellevue and Dr. Bruno was standing over me. He said, “I got to tell you something.” I said, “I think I know what you’re going to tell me. I got one leg.” Doctor said, “We tried everything to reattach it.” Oh, well, life goes on.

Did you know this doctor?  No. I saw him when I woke up. He was standing over me in intensive care and he was there when I woke up.

Were you homeless before this happened?  Yeah, sure. I was living in shelters, working in different agencies. Going out every day trying to find work.

What’s the steadiest job you’ve had?  I worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for quite a long time. From ’72 to ‘78 on the dry docks building ships. That’s when Jimmy Carter was in office and there was that embargo. The US started building tankers. There were four massive tankers in the yard.

Before that?  Odd jobs. This and that. I went into the job corps in the ‘60s. When they had the draft I wasn’t in it, and I damn sure wasn’t volunteering. They’re spending all this money for the war. The government and the corporations manufacture all that shit. Without war nobody makes any money.

Where do you sleep at night?  I sleep right out here, around the corner under the scaffolding. When I’m over here I try to get enough money so I can get a room at night. If I don’t, I sleep right out here.

Where’s your family?  I don’t have any. When I was small I never knew who my mother and father was.

Who raised you?  I was up in Saint Johns Home in the Peekskills. It was all right.

Do you keep in touch with any of the other kids you grew up with?  Never.

Who is your best friend?  My pocket, or the man upstairs.

What do you attribute your homelessness to?  I don’t have a home!

Do you ever think of what’s next for you?  One day at a time. I want to get housing where I don’t have to be panhandling. I don’t mess with shelters. They’re dangerous. There’s a bunch of cliques. It’s a real awful situation.

How much money do you need to get a place to stay for the night?  Three dollars for the key deposit and $20 for the room.

Can you make that in a day?  Yeah, if people are willing to give. If you hear of anything, let me know, you know, that’s wheelchair accessible.