I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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Sparrow makes his home in New York City, not far from Tompkins Square Park, where 300 homeless people live.
“This must be the utmost high point in the history of Tompkins Square Park,” I told Jim Brodie, coming back from a poetry reading three weeks ago.
“I mean, it’s a city. On the way to the video store, it’s like you’ve toured Cincinnati! There’s the black Rastafarian district, the white Rastafarian district, the Hare Krishna sympathizers, the dog people (those walking dogs), yuppies with novels, and everyone who lives there. My favorites are those who live on stage, inside the band shell. There’s something spectacular about living on stage. Violet and I gave a party for New Year’s and someone brought us wine, but we don’t drink so I gave it to the people on stage, and they smiled from under their quilts.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
Next thing I heard, Jim Brodie was living in the park.
We all think, “Someday, if I am bad, I will live there in that park.” Even David Rockefeller can’t look at those smoking steel drums without thinking that. It’s like you can’t pass a pornographic theater without thinking, “Should I visit?”
A few years ago the Miami Zoo hired a man to stay in one of its habitats for two weeks. I believe he was a Spaniard and lived alongside the buffalo. A sign that said “Homo sapiens” was attached to the fence. He wore a suit and carried an attaché case and pretended no one saw him.
He was truly popular. Thousands watched him during his internment, though they themselves were Homo sapiens and did all the things he did. They wanted to learn what they looked like. It’s so rare to see others brush their teeth or burp. Perhaps this is why people marry.
The Tompkins Square homesteaders are this for us. We see, in our lonely New York way, how others stretch when they wake in the morning, how a woman sings to herself when she sits with a dog. It teaches us that people are always busy, that they spend most of their lives making decisions.
Watching someone decide whether to walk west or east is as educational as reading Jane Eyre. You can see that there are a few people inside each person — mother and father, at least — and these people are always quarreling.
Also the park-dwellers hoist bags, adding weight to themselves. They have so much might, which reminds us that people are basically mighty.
And, of course, everyone looks better under a tree.
I work at a camp for autistic kids, and Shelly, the assistant director, asked me on Thursday morning, “Were you out at the park last night, when the cops took their homes apart and threw them in the garbage?”
“No, I was in bed, worn out from these kids.”
She’d seen it on the news. Funny, she knew before I did, and I’m three blocks from the northwest corner of the park.
Friday I was walking home, and two guys had set up a table on St. Mark’s Place and written a sign in pen. On the table was a jar with coins and a few dollar bills. I stopped because the sign was unreadable, and I figure any sign that’s too faint to read must be for a good cause.
“Our friend is in jail, and we’re trying to raise money to get him out,” a young guy who looked rather suburban said to me. His hair was done up in pink dye.
There was a demonstration the night the cops destroyed the shelters, he explained.
“Was it peaceful?” I asked.
“Yeah. We started a bonfire in the street. . . .”
“Well, we were trying for media attention.”
Anyway, the cops had a phalanx of twenty at the entrance to the park. Plainclothes cops would filter into the demonstration, arrest one guy at a time, pull him through the row of cops, then beat him where the TV cameras couldn’t see.
“They beat me,” the pink-headed guy said. He lifted his hair to show me his nose. I’d seen it as we spoke but assumed it was acne. The police had made a fat red cut in him.
“The way I see it is, if you take a guy’s house and throw it in the garbage, you’re saying he’s garbage.” (In this case it was redundant. Most of the houses were garbage. It was like arresting someone in jail.)
Almost everyone I know who has a girlfriend lives at least one hundred miles from her. Fred, for example, edits sound for movies in Los Angeles. He did “Friday The 13th, Part VI.” “You put in the creaking doors and the bloodcurdling screams?” I asked him. “I did the creaking doors,” he explained. “Bloodcurdling screams are down the hall.”
Anyway, his girlfriend in Portland, Oregon, just finished her Ph.D. and moved to Richmond, Virginia. He was thinking of moving there, but there are no creaking doors to be edited in Richmond. It’s sad, but typical.
It seems to me the Plague Of Homelessness is a reflection of this. No two of us can make a home together. In some way, none of us have homes. These people who live in our parks are pictures of us. They can’t decide whether to walk west or east. Finally they decide, and we walk west, watching them walk east.