Tag Archive | homeless

The homeless, art and Basquiat’s anger

“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world,” said a homeless mixed media artist in Above Ground, a study of aging artists in New York City. He was 72.

I read somewhere the other day that the life expectancy of the average homeless man is 47; that of the average woman 43.

I was just in New York City, walking down the Broadway on the Upper Westside and fingering change in my jacket pocket, when a man approached me and asked for seventy-five cents and as it turned out that was precisely what I was fiddling with and I gave it to him. Not fiddling, I shook my head “no” to the next two probably homeless fellows who were still approaching the age of mortality. I felt appropriately guilty afterwards. No spontaneous generosity there.

I saw an overwhelming exhibit of the paintings of Basquiat, the graffiti artist who died of an overdose at the age of 27 in New York in 1988. Lots of large anger on public walls…. The art of street people, the art of the homeless. “It’s about 80% anger,” said Jean-Michel Basquiat of his work.

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

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Faye and the Doppleganger

She asks me to meet her at the coffee shop at Port Authority. Her bus will arrive at nine this evening.

Where will you be coming from? I ask, thinking that I can meet her at the bus and convince her to go somewhere more wholesome than the coffee shop. But she doesn’t tell me and I know she’s afraid my phone is bugged.

So the coffee shop it will be, even though I dread it. Just walking through the door makes me feel dirty and diseased, as if microbes from all the near-pneumonias, skin rashes and veneral itches that are wheezed into the place every day are filling the atmosphere and choking off its oxygen. I know that my own middle class fastidiousess is one of the problems. I’ve tried to overcome it. After all, I am living in New York City.

She warns me to be careful, to keep my eyes open. Someone might follow me. I assure her I will. I remember years ago when she told me she’d seen my doppleganger sitting on a bench at Port Authority. Or rather, the woman was almost my doppleganger, she was still in the process of becoming me. It wasn’t just that she looked like me, it was something less definable, more intangible than that. More important. Be careful, she said, when she heard that I was going to Maine for the summer. Be careful, especially on the coast. I envisioned the periscopes of patrolling enemy warships poking up through the Atlantic white caps and surveilling me as the kids and I splashed in the surf. Have your fingerprints recorded when you get there, she instructed, and again before you leave.

Thank God, everyone is out so there’s no need to explain where I’m going. I’ll just leave a note: “Be back soon.” I remember to search the apartment for spare cash. A few years ago when I saw her maybe once a month, I’d buy her lunch and give her an extra five. It’s been a long time and I’m glad when I find fifteen, enough for coffee, and food if she wants it.

The evening is mild, not too cold for someone who lives on the streets and is coming into town too late at night to find a shelter. She’s never gone to the big city shelters, they’re rife with thieves and spies. The smaller church-run places will be filled. She’ll probably stay at the bus terminal, pick out a likely bench, and sleep sitting up, keeping a wary eye out for the enemy. As I walk towards the subway, I wonder if she’d worry about them on my block, where a group of old men play dominoes, click-clack, and prurient young people hang out on the stoops, murmuring sentiments and obscenities. It doesn’t matter; I’m not bringing her to this street. Nobody in my house wants anything to do with my crazy bag lady. I can’t blame them. I don’t know what to do with her either. She needs so much, I might grow to hate her. How could we have her in our home staring oddly at the children and scaring the neighbors? When Walter met her, he shook his head in disbelief. “You do know, Carolyn, that she’s real mental case,” he murmured to me, excusing himself quickly. The children were much younger then and they avoided her; there was something about her they didn’t trust. Probably, I thought, they were afraid that all that ravenous need would escalate into unfair competition for my attention.

I climb the long stairway to the el and look out over my neighborhood while I wait for the train. There’s a moon but not much of one: city lights overwhelm it. For years I thought that her enemies must be denizens of New York City, some of the millions of people out there, staring rudely at her across the aisle on the subway, or glaring when she accidentally pushed her lurching shopping cart into them on 42nd Street. I thought they might be among the people she met when she lost her apartment and sat in Denny’s wondering where to go. She was much younger then, and even though she was taut with anxiety and perpetually ready to leave for somewhere else, I thought she was beautiful. She didn’t have the face of a woman men who frequent Denny’s would want to hit on–not that kind of beauty. Instead, she had the gaunt face of one of those women in thin cotton dresses photographed by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. She was poverty made emblematic. She inspired not so much pity as awe, at the same time as she set off every beneficent impulse in me.

Anyway, as it turned out, her enemies aren’t just skulking through the streets of New York. They’re in Maine; they followed her to Wilkes Barre and even Virginia. They’re in Eastern Europe and Iraq, and scattered across the African continent. Given their tenacity and that they’re everywhere, given that they are as real to her as anyone I know is to me, I think she’s the bravest person I know.

The train pulls in, the doors open, and the passengers get on and scatter themselves around the car, grateful that they don’t need to sit too close to each other since the hour is an odd one and there’s plenty of room. We each do a quick study of the people around us and, assured that no one poses an immediate danger, look away again. By the time the train jolts to a start, we’re staring numbly into our own private surrounds. Except for the readers of newspapers and books who simply disappear–no one will see them again until it’s time to get off. We rock and roll down the tracks, the music of the train lulling us into a languor that’s between times, a zone where we’re not responsible for anyone or anything—there’s nothing we can do even if we would. We can even pretend not to be ourselves.

I was thankful when Faye went to live with her mother in Virginia five years ago. I stopped worrying about how useless a friend I was. She had a home; she was safe. Not too many months before, while she was living in a Catholic shelter in mid town, she’d cracked up utterly. I was surprised. She had been doing well there. I met her several times at the Courtyard on Broadway where tables and chairs were free to everyone, even if they didn’t order from the snack carts around the periphery. It was one of the few places on the Upper West Side where homeless people could sit and talk without being asked to move on. She presided over a table of people she knew from the shelter: a small frightened, white-faced woman who hid in the folds of a secondhand coat of mottled grays and browns; a grizzled black man who fancied himself full of wisdom and recited incessant platitudes about the meaning of it all; and an almost toothless blonde of uncertain age who chattered about the indifferent weather of that autumn as if it were a challenge to us all. Faye was their leader, and even a mother figure to the fearful woman who looked up at her adoringly. I found it vaguely flattering that they seemed to assume that I was one of them even though I couldn’t always figure out what they were talking about and how to join them in their discussion of it, and even though, at the same time, I found myself scanning the crowd around us, hoping that no one would think I belonged with them.

Two weeks later I got a call from the Belleview Hospital psych ward. Faye had been discovered at dawn wandering among the newly inflated balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Her shouted dialogue with Betty Boop had been loud enough to precipitate a 911 call. She had a business card I’d given her in her purse—I guess it and a social security card were the only forms of ID they found—so they called me. Of course, most of the people Faye knew didn’t have telephones or addresses. I didn’t know who else to contact so I called her mother, but even though I could hear her wringing her hands, I knew there was nothing she could do. I promised I’d go see her discombobulated daughter and phone again.

Dressed in a hospital gown and over-sized pink slippers, she welcomed me with open arms like a scruffy angel at the gates of paradise who’d been waiting for someone she thought was lost. I was relieved that she recognized me; I only just knew her, she was so over-excited, high pitched, floating as far above the world around her as ever any Macy’s Parade balloon. She couldn’t stay still for more than moments at a time, and so we walked for the hour I was there, up and down the hallway along with other visitors and their gowned guides, some of them meandering like unmoored spirits, others shuffling at the same harried pace as Faye, trying to get somewhere before it was too late. We came to an atrium where we shambled round and round a plastic Christmas tree through a haze of mumbling, tears and laughter, among couches and chairs with patients and their families acting out small excruciating dramas, while those who had no one stared unseeing out the windows at the night sky lit up in shades of neon.

“It started at Grand Central Station,” she explained. “I looked up at the ceiling and the planets and the stars were revolving across it. They were whirling; the universe was dancing and it made me ecstatic. I was blissed out by it.” I began to understand—since the sky is mapped on that huge, high ceiling, it seemed to me that anyone looking up long enough would get odd, and especially someone like Faye. Maybe the security guards in the place should be alerted to the danger and stop people from looking up for more than moments at a time.

“I’d never seen the sky that way. So big, so…legible. I knew things I’d never known before but I didn’t know how I could share what I saw. Horoscopes of the president and his cabinet, the fortunes and misfortunes of millionaires, the endings of the most horrible dictatorships in the world. The future of the earth was written up there and I could read it. I had to tell everyone. You do understand, don’t you? I tried to tell people. I don’t remember too much: a taxi cab driver, such a nice man—he listened; a crowd in the park— they laughed and asked me to stay and dance with them. We really kicked up our heels. Then somehow I came to the place where the monsters and their keepers waited for me. Oh, I know they weren’t really, but at the same time they were, you know. It was them trying to confuse me again.”

I felt stupid because I honestly didn’t understand much of what she said after that—but eventually whatever they gave her every few hours kicked in; she turned droopy and depressed; and I left her in the competent hands of a nurse. I didn’t go back to the hospital while she was there. I was uncomfortable; I was busy. I did pay her rent on a locker at Port Authority.

When they released her, she went to her mother’s house in Virginia. That seemed to me to be a good thing. I imagined a modest two story in a rundown but genteel neighborhood. She’d be close to Washington, D.C., but as provocative as that was, it shouldn’t be as bad as living on the streets of New York. Both she and her mother were on Social Security, so they’d have enough to live on. Her mother owned the house; it would be Faye’s after the old woman died. What could possibly go wrong? Faye’s occasional letters said very little—sometimes a mention of the weather, less than a sentence’s disquiet about her mother’s health. Mostly they were about the suffering of children in Iraq and what our government had done or should do, instructions to telephone the president or write something of my own, and a description of her struggle to get an article into the op ed pages of the Times. I was shamed by her letters: she tried so hard to do her part and take care of the world. What was I doing? This isn’t a story about me, but I can tell you it’s never been all that much.

And now the phone call. Against all odds, it seemed something had gone awry.

The train hurtles into 42nd Street and I start up from my subway repose to begin my trek through the labyrinth of tunnels that wind around middle New York—middle assumes that there’s another deeper level where water, sewage and electricity run like blood through the city’s veins and arteries—but never mind that, I’m here at the middle level, where the pulse of the place quickens and its internal parts growl. Theater- and-concert-goers have already come and gone, but it’s a Friday night and the underground is full of people heading for parties or, who knows, perhaps to meetings with odd acquaintances at the Port Authority coffee shop. A man is wailing “Lost in the Stars” on a tenor sax. How appropriate, I think, feeling almost droll.

It was here, years ago, in this zigzag of stairs and ramps at the start of the long sloping passageway to the station, that Faye told me she knew who killed the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. By the time we reached the midpoint where the begging torch singer always sits, she’d explained that the killers were the same people she had to watch out for, the same ones who menaced all of us. I wasn’t sure I heard her right over a long moaning “love” in G minor from the torch singer, but it didn’t really matter, I thought, because, unlike Faye, I didn’t believe there was anything I could do about them if they’d done it. Also, unlike her, I couldn’t recognize them.

In front of the toll booth, a bunch of kids vault the turnstile and scatter around me, running, yelling, on their way uptown to God knows where. I dodge a skateboard here and a flying backpack there, walk fast past the Jehovah’s Witness reaching out to me with Awake, past the panhandling nun I’ve never believed is one but always wondered—does she believe it?—and then up the up escalator into the cavernous terminal where the sound of a multitude of voices turns to cacophony. Almost everybody is going somewhere, and I’m as amazed as I always am that there are so many people here, and I don’t know even one.

The coffee shop is to one side of the terminal behind a wall of windows striped with wide opaque bars. Peering in between them, I see she’s not there yet so I look for a magazine to buy, not so much to read as to stare into so that I don’t seem too much at leisure in a room full of losers looking for someone to talk to. I know this coffee shop too well. People who don’t feel desperate when they cross the threshold will by the time they leave. It smells of grease and onions. The fluorescence turns everyone eerily green. It’s a light that cheapens everything it touches; clothes look as if they were purchased at Goodwill; skin turns pasty; men look criminal and women, even old women, look as if they’re waiting for a trick. How ironic that the rich— who already have makeup, costumes and even licensed surgeons to make themselves beautiful—also enjoy flattering lighting.

I take a seat at the counter with US News and World Report, wishing I were a kid with a comic book instead and could spin around on it to make the time pass. Then the waitress would be nice, perhaps even motherly, but now, when she finishes joking with a bus driver on break, she confronts me brusquely, grasping her pencil and pad like weapons. I’m instantly on the defensive; she can tell she has an advantage. She can be as mean as she likes and I’ll only glare at her, like I’m better than she is, or that’s what she’ll say if anyone should ask why she dislikes me. I order coffee and she brings me some in one of those thick-lipped, cracked cups of indeterminate color that someone loosed on the world, probably in the 1950s. I drink from it but there’s a prayer on my lips that the organisms that live there have already found a home with the woman who used the cup before me and left a faint lipstick smear that I try to drink around. I open my magazine and wait: “Hunger in America.” “Mourning the victims of war.” “The president plays a round of golf.”

I met Faye at a temporary office job in the early seventies where we both typed fund-raising letters for the annual campaign of the hospitals of New York City. I was in my twenties; she must have been in her middle thirties. I had taken time off from graduate school; she was struggling to keep body and soul together.

We weren’t just typists. This was before computers, of course, and each letter had to be original and pristine—no erasures. After we finished with it, it went to be signed by someone distinguished, then copied, and stuffed into envelopes. Oh, how we hated that job. I remember Faye bent over her typewriter struggling to make her hands work. She was brighter than most of the people there—but everything was always so hard for her.

The closest we typists got to the balls, art show openings and testimonial dinners where the actual checks were collected, was the day our good-looking boss, Jack—a guy to die for Faye said, and blushed—his face wide open and self-important with a toothpaste smile, brought a mink coat into the office. It was one of the prizes in a drawing for the very rich. We were all awed when we touched it, even though some of us worried quietly about the little minks whose collective coat it really was and the political correctness of admiring it. One after the other, we tried it on. For me it was an amazing experience. The minute I draped myself in fur, I was a different person. Stroking the satiny coat, wrapping it around me, I was poised, glamorous, I walked differently. When I took it off I was just me again. Faye was the only one of us who refused to try it on. She didn’t say anything about principles, though she may have thought it. It seemed to me rather that she was afraid she would be lost in it and not know herself anymore.

Elvis Presley is singing on the loudspeaker system. “I’ve been so lonely baby, Well I’m so lonely, well I’m so lonely I could die.” I hope she doesn’t arrive until it’s over. It’s criminal to play that song here. I imagine men in shirt sleeves in a smoke-filled back room somewhere on the second floor of Port Authority choosing to program it for the coffee shop every evening at this time. They laugh wickedly. They know they’re playing with people’s lives.

No good. She’s in and she’s already heard it, although she doesn’t seem to care. Sweaters, scarves, notebooks and a partly eaten Hostess cupcake are erupting from the tops of the shopping bags that hang heavily from each hand, weighing her down so that she moves slowly like a woman whose pregnancy is in its last days. I leap up and take one of the bags from her and lead her to a booth, tucking both of them under the table before I go back to get my coffee. “How are you?” I say, taking her empty, flailing hand, and wondering if I should have asked because her face is tense and her eyes are wide with the excitement of being chased.

She looks around warily. “I’m okay, I think.” Her voice is older than I remember it, but otherwise she hasn’t aged.

“Well I’m so lonely, well I’m so lonely I could die,” sings Elvis. “Would you like something to eat? A hamburger? Some coffee?” “Coffee. Maybe tuna fish? I don’t know.” I order more coffee, a tuna fish sandwich. Some chips. “Where did you come from?”

“Philadelphia. I spent last night in Philadelphia. I met a Sagittarian boy there and we sat and talked.” “How old was he?” “Twenty-one. That’s what he said. He was lost and so we talked about it. I did his horoscope and when he understood that he was meant to wander and search for meaning, he felt better.” I envy the kid; I remember when she looked at the stars for me, she discovered that a previous life had exhausted me, and that I was still tired. Although it was good to have an excuse for everything I’d never accomplished, the accounting made me a little glum.

“Did you tell him about yourself?” “Oh, yes. He was a good sign. I know everything will be okay now.”

“Do you need money? I haven’t much but I can help some.” “That would be so good of you, Carolyn. It’s not why I called you though, you know. But I did give Ted, that’s the Sagittarian, a few dollars. And now I see that I’ll need more. I asked for my check to be sent to a Boston post office box but I don’t know if it’ll be there when I get there.”

“Your social security check?”

“Yes.”

“How much money did you give Ted?”

“Twenty dollars.”

“I think I’ve got fifteen,” I say, rifling through my wallet. Why are the poor always so generous to other poor? “Is that all right?” “That’s very nice of you. I just couldn’t wait for my check. They were after me.”

“Tell me what happened. Did your mother die?”

“Yes, poor Mama. She suffered so much at the end. She moaned all day and all night. She went into a trance.”

“I’m so sorry. It must have been awful for you. What do you mean she went into a trance? What kind of trance?”

“She chanted nursery rhymes. She said things I didn’t understand even though I tried. I think it was code. If I could have make out what she was talking about, I’d have been able to take care of us.”

The tuna fish sandwich is a sad affair—white bread, wilting iceberg, the tuna mushy with Miracle    Whip. She wolfs half of it down, then begins to munch on the chips while she talks. “For a long time they couldn’t find me. Or at least that’s what I thought. When I went out I was careful to make sure the street was all clear. I never saw them, but they must have been there all the time. I just couldn’t recognize them.”

She looks across at me suddenly, and smiles. “I’m sorry, Carolyn. I haven’t even asked. How are you? You look tired,” she adds sympathetically.

“I’m fine,” I say, smiling back. “The kids are nearly grown. Walter is still disappointing. I’m working on a peace project, trying to do some good.”

“Then you’ll want to see my article about the Iraqi children,” she says. “I’ll find a xerox machine in Boston. It’s almost finished, I don’t think they know about it.” Instinctively, she ducks her head as someone in a suit walks by.

Her articles are not badly written, although they’re much shorter than she thinks they are. Her research is solid, but of course it’s not original. It’s straight from the Washington Post, Newsweek…. whatever she can find. The enemy doesn’t figure in her writing even though he’s out to stop her. Her long- hand is only just legible. I’ve seen her clutch the pencil in one arthritic hand and sometimes both, laboring over yellow-lined paper. She always numbers the pages oddly, and they’re hard to get through.

“What happened?” I ask. “How did you come to recognize them?”

“We had a neighbor across the street. Dimitri. He was a good man. He mowed the lawn for us and he’d bring us ice cream treats on hot days. One day I told him about them. He was very interested. He said he’d had experiences with the same people in Slovakia. That’s where he was from.” She finished the chips, pushed her plate away, and took a sip of coffee.

“I think he loved me. He kissed me one afternoon.” She reddened and looked much younger than she was, then stared down into her coffee cup. “That was my first mistake; that’s when it all started.”

“What started, Faye?”

“I was watching him out the front window one day. There was something strange about him, something different. At first I tried to ignore it, because I didn’t want it to be true.”

“What?”

“He was changing. I saw it around his eyes, and then his hands. He looked exactly the same, but he wasn’t. Then he went on a trip to Slovakia. He was gone for months. When he came back, he wasn’t the same person at all.”

“Did he act differently towards you and your mother?”

“Oh, no. He still mowed the lawn and brought ice cream, but I could tell. I didn’t want to let him in, but Mama insisted so we did for a while. That was when the social services people started coming to the house.”

“Why did they come?”

“They said to check on us. Mama was very sick by then. They said they wanted to make sure we could take care of ourselves. They wanted her to go to the doctor, but she said no. She was still in her right mind then.”

The story is beginning to worry me. What were the social services people looking for? Did they worry about Faye’s mental balance? Did they think she was keeping her mother from proper medical treatment? The woman was ninety-five, after all. What had caught their attention and what did they think should be done about it?

“They wanted to take away our house.”

“Why? It belonged to you. Why would they want to do that?” Of course, Faye wasn’t mentally well by their lights. But she’d lived there happily with her mother for five years. Why would they threaten to take the house?

“Dimitri told them it wasn’t clean. It was his fault they came.”

“Why would he do that?” I remember when Faye had an apartment, it was always kept clean.

“He was on their side; he must have always been. I was too embarrassed to try to explain. I’d stacked everything upstairs. I’d put them in big Hefty bags and closed them with ties. I didn’t know what else to do with them. There were way too many to put into the garbage. At first, since they were upstairs, no one could tell, but then I guess even in bags they began to smell.”

“What, Faye?”

“Her Depends. She went through them so fast, I could just barely keep up. Pretty soon, all the rooms upstairs were filled. I didn’t let the Social Services people go up, but they knew.”

“You poor dear,” I say, imagining her furtively stacking the bags to the ceiling, the collection mounting, the piles beginning to spill down the stairs.

“Then Mama died,” she said, choking up, the tears in her eyes twinkling in the green flourescence.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“It’s all right. I know how to get in touch with her.” She sips her coffee. There’s an enigmatic smile on her lips. “Afterwards the social services people came again. I didn’t answer the door, but they left a note that said that they were coming the next day to take the house because it was a health hazard. That night I took all the bags outside into the back yard and made a huge pile. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew my time was almost up. They were going to get me if I didn’t run. I had to make things right. Then I had to get out of there.”

She’s wringing her arthritic hands, her eyes wide again, remembering the night and her terror.

“So you took all the bags out and stacked them up. Then did you run?”

“No. I wanted to, but the pile was so amazing. It glittered in the moonlight. There was a full moon, and my planets were in the ascendant.” I wait while she searches for words to describe it. “It was like the wood we used to stack up in Minnesota to make giant bonfires after a football game.”

“And so you…”

“Burned it.”

She looks at me, anticipating my pleasure. “I doused it with gasoline; I found some matches in the kitchen, and I lit it. What a fire it was! It roared and popped like fireworks, it lit up the sky. It made me so glad, I danced around it while it burned. I danced and I danced, I even took off my shoes and danced. I felt beautiful like Marilyn Monroe.” She picks up her cup of coffee and holds it in front of her face, then smiles a beatific smile.

I smile back, happy for her, astonished at her.

“There were sirens; the dogs next door were howling. I heard the fire trucks and the police coming, but I kept dancing. By the time they came close, the fire was almost out and I left.”

“So you just left the house? A whole house?”

“Yes. I took a bus to Washington, D.C. I didn’t think they’d find me there right away—and they didn’t for a few days.”

“Then Philadelphia. Now New York. And you’re going to Boston next?”

“Yes. I bought a bus ticket. They won’t find me there. Unless they trace my check. I don’t think they’ll do that.”

I help her with her bags to the bench she chooses for her wait. Near the Boston stop, but not quite in front of it. She doesn’t want anyone to guess where she’s going.

“Have you ever been to Boston before?”

“No, but I’ve met people who have. It’ll be all right.”

“If I wanted to find you, where would I go?”

“The Boston Common, don’t you think? No one will look for me there.”

We sit quietly, studying the people who pass. “Carolyn,” she adds a moment later, “One more thing. If you see Dimitri don’t let him see you. People born under Virgo could be at risk this month.”

“I’ll be careful.”

The bus will be at the station in another hour. My family is waiting and so I leave her, sitting with her bags, trying not to doze off. On the way home, I worry about her mother’s house. Is there any way I can save it for her? I imagine talking to whoever’s in charge of abandoned houses in Alexandria, and telling them about Faye. Maybe they could sell it and send the money to her in Boston. Maybe I could take the money to her myself. I’d find her on the Commons, sitting on a bench with new friends, trying to finish her op ed article. Until the enemy appears again, that’s probably where she’ll be.

It’s a fool’s errand, of course. There’s no way I can help her; I’d only end by setting another bureau- cratic trap for her. All I know to do is what I’ve done in the past. A few dollars, an hour here, an hour there. I’m afraid to take her into my life; she’d fill it to overflowing with shopping bags. I’d be even more afraid to step into hers and combat the enemy hand-to-hand. I know I wouldn’t have any more success coping with them than she has. Worse, if I got too close to them, I could become my own doppleganger.

I’d be like Dimitri. I’d become one of them.