Home. What is home? I think of my mother, our yard, gardening, cooking, warmth — though on a typical night at my home, I arrive late; open a can of lentil soup, too tired to cook; eat alone in front of the TV; make phone calls; then go to bed.
At Broadway and 99th Street there are encampments every fifty feet or so. Some look as though they could furnish a small room: abandoned sofas and reclining chairs, elaborate systems of plastic tarps; collections of books, junk, even appliances, set out to sell. On my way to work the other morning, I saw a homeless man sweeping the sidewalk in front of his shelter.
At 43rd Street the Christians have a table and microphone set up to preach the word of God complete with pictures of aborted fetuses. One rainy afternoon, as I approached the Christian preachers I saw a small number of gay men picketing the Christians. The Christians were shouting, “Perversion!” over and over again, while the gay men vied for our attention by thrusting flyers into our hands and shouting, “Act Up!” The homeless people began to take sides. Some backed up the Christians and became verbally abusive toward the gay men. Others became protective of the gay men and began to argue with the Christians. In the meantime, the desperate commuters were simply trying to escape.
I arrived at 96th Street, wet and tired. As I walked toward my apartment, I saw a homeless man carrying a huge beach umbrella. I smiled at him, such a happy sight, and he immediately came over and covered my head with the enormous umbrella.
“You know a lady shouldn’t walk in the rain without an umbrella.” I giggled uncomfortably and thought, “How can I elude him?” “You know, how would you — because I mean no harm, and you do know I mean no harm — how would you like to give a donation to the United Negro Pizza Fund?’
I giggled again and mumbled something about having no money (a lie). I said, “How about next time?”
“Okay, then,” he laughed, “next time. You have a nice night and God bless.”
Off he sauntered with his comical umbrella, leaving me feeling guilty, and oddly lonely, incredibly lonely, to walk four wet blocks home to my can of lentil soup, TV, and bed.
New York, New York
I was homeless for nearly two years. As a homeless person I had little contact with the world of working men and women. I did not see them; did they see me? My associates were winos, ex-convicts, heroin addicts, petty criminals. I respected their cunning and ability to survive. We knew society was against us; it was this that unified us. I trusted these men and women, though none, including myself, was capable of intimacy. I often had a boyfriend, but I was never friends with a woman. I could not attempt the honesty that underlies friendship. I was unable to speak the truth about myself, especially to myself.
I lived in the back seats of cars, in flophouses, in condemned housing, and briefly, in jail. Sometimes I got it together enough to rent an apartment, but after a few months I would fall behind in the rent and get evicted — once at gunpoint. The streets seemed safer.
In the past, I had friends and family, and then I had shame and fear. I didn’t distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. I never had a plan. I never dreamed of how it used to be or how it might have been or what it would be like in the future.
When I visited Zurich, my host Luzi told me it was illegal to walk the streets of Switzerland without money. Policemen ask to see not only your ID, but your cash. If you have less than thirty francs, you can be fined. By outlawing poverty, joked Luzi, Switzerland has gotten rid of it.
Consider Berkeley, where it’s okay not only to be broke on the streets, but to live on them. What do you find? People living on the streets. Broke.
For many, it’s a Sisyphean struggle to make rent, eat, keep the car running, pay insurance, and keep the electricity from being shut off — so it’s plausible there are folks who’ve decided it’s stupid to push a rock up the hill only to have it roll down again. Could it be there are those who live as Jesus suggested, like the ravens and lilies, without a thought for tomorrow? One thing’s certain: were Jesus alive today, in Berkeley, he wouldn’t be living in one of those lovely homes overlooking the bay. I’d wager there are more candidates for sainthood — and more of the kind of folks Jesus hung out with — on the streets than in the churches.
For three years I lived alone in an apartment. If the phone rang, it was a wrong number. The only people who came to the door were kids trying to sell newspaper subscriptions. But I stayed because I couldn’t imagine a better place. That was how I lived — isolated except for my job and trips to the library or grocery store.
To have a home you have to make a long-term commitment. You have to be able to imagine a future that is worth the emotional investment in a place and in yourself. Part of me believed that if I didn’t have a home, I was less real and thus less vulnerable.
About two years ago, I relived memories of being sexually abused by my father. My “irrational” fears and isolation, my inability to hope or trust anyone (even myself), my uneasiness with the idea of “home,” suddenly made sense. I’m trying to make a home for myself now, particularly for the part of me that is still the abused toddler. I need a home now, a place to retreat to when the memories are too intense. My new home (and it’s scary to call it that) is a physical manifestation of my hope.
We pulled off the interstate early, hoping to find a mission or shelter with clean beds and a shower. The idea of spending another night in the van was unbearable, so we followed the highway signs that led to a fair-sized city flickering off to the right.
It was a hot, sticky night somewhere in Nebraska. Streaks of lightning on the horizon threatened a thunderstorm that would thicken the July humidity. My throat was parched from road dust, but there was nothing left in the cooler except a carton of milk for the baby and a bag of melting ice that smelled sour.
“Have we got enough change for a soda?” I asked Danny.
He didn’t answer, which meant we didn’t. I focused on the possibility of breakfast and strong coffee in the morning if we could find a place to stay.
Khi, our two-year-old, stirred in the back, waking as we pulled into a gas station. She climbed up front and onto my lap as Danny got out of the van. I watched through the bug-splattered windshield as he walked to the phone.
“Don’t come,” my dad had said when I’d called him the week before from Nevada. “We don’t have enough room.” There had been a long, uncomfortable pause.
“It would only be for a few weeks,” I’d pleaded. “Just till Danny gets a job and we can get our feet on the ground.” I could hear his wife talking in the background while I waited for his answer.
“We’re just too old for all that,” he said finally. “Besides, there’s no work here in Westville. You’d be better off someplace else.”
“Please,” I whispered. “We have nowhere else to go.”
But Dad wouldn’t budge. I didn’t know how to tell Danny that he’d turned us down. “He said we can stay a few weeks,” I lied. “But we’ll have to get our own place as soon as we can.” I could only pray that Dad would change his mind once we showed up on his doorstep.
“Okay, there’s a place about a mile from here,” Danny said when he got back in the van. “There’s no phone number listed, just an address. I guess you just show up.” He pointed down the street. “We go down here to Randolph Road and turn right. Help me remember, Randolph Road.”
We found Randolph easy enough and pulled up in front of an old brick building. It looked dark and abandoned, but Danny turned off the engine and got out. “You stay here till I check it out,” he said over his shoulder. Then he stopped and turned for just a second. “Hey, I love you.”
He rang the buzzer several times before a small light blinked on and a man appeared at the door.
The last mission we’d stayed at had been in California a few weeks before. The baby had clung to me on the narrow bunk bed. Danny had slept in another room with the other men. I’d lain awake most of the night worrying, fearful that in the morning Danny would be gone.
Next morning, I found him waiting in line for breakfast, holding a place for us. He was rolling a cigarette from a large bag of tobacco offered to him by a man with shaking, sweaty hands. I listened as the two made small talk until the doors opened and the line moved forward.
The baby played with her pancakes while Danny and I sat talking at the long picnic table. The Christian girl who worked at the mission came over and sat across from Danny. I tried to ignore her as she stared at him while she ate. She spread her skirted legs and asked him to pass the syrup.
The man turned and walked back inside. A second later the porch light went out. Danny just stood there for a long moment. “No women or kids allowed,” he said when he returned to the van. “We’ll just park somewhere for the night.”
“Let’s find a toilet first,” I said. “I have to pee.”
We stopped at a gas mart and I used the bathroom, then warmed up a bottle of milk for Khi in the store’s microwave. Danny bought some peanut-butter crackers, and then we walked outside and stretched for a few minutes before returning to the van.
We drove, looking for the right place to park. Some spots attracted too much attention, others were too bright or noisy, and some were not safe.
“This is it,” he said, pulling into a Methodist church parking lot. “We can probably get some gas money from the preacher in the morning. Maybe even some food.”
The back of the van was piled high with all our belongings. We had everything packed onto the floor. The pair of doors across the top made a platform. A thick layer of pillows and blankets served as the bed. Clothes were scattered about in plastic bags; a row of cardboard boxes across the side window held odds and ends that wouldn’t fit under the doors.
I changed Khi into her pajamas and brushed out her hair. She finished her crackers and then settled down with her milk.
Finally we lay down. Danny was against the side door, his long legs stretched up and over the front passenger seat. Khi was on the other side under the windows. I could hear her sucking her bottle, content to be lying next to me. I turned from side to side trying to find a comfortable position. As time passed, I could hear the soft patter of rain on the roof — not enough to have to close the windows, but enough to help me drift off to sleep.
At first I thought the bright light was the sun, but the loud pounding on the window brought me up quick. Danny rose a second later. The policeman flashed his light throughout the van. My heart pounded while Danny tried to explain our situation. “We got a complaint from one of the neighbors,” the officer said. “Seems they didn’t recognize your vehicle.”
I pictured an old lady, probably watching us right now, peeking through her curtains, hoping to see some excitement she could talk about tomorrow.
Realizing our situation, the officer’s tone turned soft, almost embarrassed; he apologized for waking us up. Then he stepped away from the window and called to his partner who was sitting in the patrol car behind us. “Everything’s okay. No problems here.”
As the mother of a gay son, I see many gay men and lesbian women cast out of their own homes for the sin of loving.
In the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade, I marched as 300,000 men and women stood along the parade route and cheered us. Many cried, “It should be my parents.”
Just last Sunday, a young man wandered into our meeting of parents of lesbians and gays. He was looking for the minister of the church where we meet. Drunk and disoriented, he shouted, “A tourist approached me on the street today asking to take my picture. When I asked him why, he said, ‘You’re gay, aren’t you?’ ” He gestured wildly with his hands.
My husband and I were in charge of the meeting, and I was concerned about the disruption. We were just beginning a discussion of how it felt the first time we told anyone that our child was gay.
“This is a meeting,” I informed the young man. “You’re welcome to stay if you can cooperate.” Cooperate. I believe I used some such word.
He sat quietly for a few moments, then wandered into the church kitchen and began washing dishes. “Someone has to do it,” he said.
Then he returned to the meeting room, laughing uncontrollably, speaking out of turn, wandering around the room.
The parents, now discussing safety on the streets for their children, looked uncomfortable. “Your behavior,” I said, “is disruptive.”
Then he lifted his pant cuff and showed me the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion on his leg. He had been diagnosed with AIDS three weeks earlier.
I reached for his hand and guided him outside. Perhaps we guided each other at that point. He was emaciated, his hands thin and delicate. He told me of being attacked on the street; he showed me the scars on the backs of his hands.
We both looked at the ground for a while, then at each other. He let me hold him. We even joked about religion after he guessed we were the same faith.
“And your parents?” I asked. “Where are they?”
He flicked his wrist to convey their dismissal of him. He told me his name was Adam, that he was Jewish. He was twenty-four, my son’s age. I gave him two dollars for carfare home.
From the time I was four months old to the time I was seventeen, there were roofs over my head: hotel rooms, or rented rooms, an occasional small apartment. But there was no home. None of the furnishings — furniture, dishes, glasses, flatwear, or linens — were mine. There was nothing to call my own.
My parents followed the tourist seasons of Miami Beach and New York’s Catskill Mountains. They rented and ran coffee shops, hotels, and dining rooms.
Every September we’d return to Florida, the place of my birth, and I’d return to school. Strangers sat where friends once had. Instead of last year’s apartment was another, a temporary rental that was no place to bring a new friend.
The summer in the mountains brought other problems: busboys, waiters, kitchen staff, and guests, different than the year before. There were no friendships beyond one school term, no romances longer than a summer. There was no permanent place to hide a memory, no guarantee I’d be around the following year.
When I finally got a place of my own, I stayed rooted there for fifteen years. When the bank manager finally smiled as I entered the lobby, the teller cashed my check without looking at my signature, the doorman knew my name, the greengrocer stocked my favorite vegetable, the cleaner knew how I liked my blouses pressed, the shoe salesman knew the size of my foot, and the waiter in the restaurant across the street knew my “usual” drink — only then could I move to a new place, sure that people who mattered would know where to find me, would know where I lived.
New York, New York
I had a nervous breakdown in March. I guess that’s the best way to put it. It was like that — things broke down.
It started when I stayed awake for four straight nights, having dreamt of an earthquake. Something fundamental had shifted, and I wasn’t familiar with the new ground I was standing on. For four days and four nights I wrote reams of notebook pages, searching my past, trying to think my way through this change.
Finally, I gave up trying. For some, that kind of giving up probably happens on a meditation cushion, or at a communion rail. For me, it happened on a cool spring day. I had on a bathrobe, a nightgown, and an old pair of socks. I simply walked out the door, locked it behind me, and tossed the keys in the bushes. No money, no purse, no wallet — no link at all to the professional woman I was.
I walked the streets slowly, carefully, savoring the sunshine and the feel of the earth beneath my feet. After an hour, perhaps two, a woman offered help. She cared for me, asked me what I needed, who I was. I said I didn’t know. She called an ambulance. I was taken to an emergency room, then to a hospital, where I spent a week.
During that week, people — both hospital staff and friends — cared for me with respect. They tried to help me through an important process, one step at a time. In a week I was back in my home, and back at my job.
Since that week my life is forever changed. I stand on new ground. Earth is my home now, not professional identity, or some carefully crafted idea of self.
Now when I walk in the woods, I see not just trees, but individual oaks, ashes, beeches. When I pass a vacant lot, I see not just weeds, but dandelions, burdock, nettle. And when I walk the city sidewalks, I see not just homeless people.
Tuesday, October 17, 1989. I preheat the oven to 450 degrees, massage a bloody roast with parsley and crushed garlic. I have planned this day — the lamb roast, the hour I will place it on the oven rack, the savory dinner my family will devour as we watch the A’s wipe the Giants all over Candlestick Park. I recheck the oven temperature, calculate minutes per pound out loud. My preteen daughter, struggling through her math homework in the adjoining room, calls me “prehistoric” because I talk to myself.
BOOM! The house reels as though hit by a massive wrecking ball. I clutch the counter, hear myself cry, “Run!” My daughter streaks past me, a blur vaulting out the back door. Wine bottles and cookbooks fly off the baker’s rack. Earthquake! Earthquake! I race for the door as a rumble convulses glass and plaster, hurls plants and dishes to the floor. I reach the back door, hear the support beams groan. A realization stuns me: my baby is on the second floor! My instinct for self-preservation continues running out the door while my body leaps up the staircase. Each stair is a jerking plank beneath my feet. Walls are buckling, planes of whiteness moving in all directions. I reach the top of the landing, turn the corner, run down the narrow hall, the snaking gray tunnel. I’m taking too long. The doors of my son’s room swing wildly on their hinges. I glimpse a frenzied whirl of shapes: the dinosaur mobile, toys and books toppling from their shelves. I see my boy frozen to the mattress as his crib bolts back and forth across the floor. I clutch his small body. Objects fly off the bureau and crash to the floor. Tree limbs lunge at the windowpane. I move toward the swinging door, falter, feel the lurching weight of the house. You will die here.
Something snaps between my eyes. I pass through the doorway, move down the narrow hall, descend steps. I hear the back door slam behind me, feel the swelling redwood deck lift me onto the grass where my daughter lies face down, her arms over her head. I stand numbly and watch the stucco walls of our house shudder. I try to pray, try to think what to do, how to shut off the gas line, the water, how to survive.
The earth stills. The house remains standing, but my home, the place where I live and dream, is shattered.
Melina P. Costello
Palo Alto, California
Roger lives at the library during the day and sleeps on the Main Street viaduct at night. In his spare time he goes to AA meetings.
Mornings, he waits on the porch for the library to open. He smells of drive-in movies and summer picnics. His shirts are blackened, his jeans sag. His tennis shoes endure.
Years ago, Roger was an accountant with a wife and child. But alcohol kidnapped him and locked him up in a harsh metal room. He lost everything trying to exist in that room.
“I’d never go back to my old life,” he says as he settles in his chair at the library and opens The Wall Street Journal. “Too much can go wrong.”
At the library, there is little to go wrong. He reads, takes a smoke break on the porch, washes up in the restroom, watches the people, and attends various lectures and slide shows. Occasionally, he goes to the basement and discusses Kipling with the children’s librarian.
“I don’t think of myself as homeless,” Roger says. “Home is a feeling of safety. I’ve lived in many buildings but never had that feeling. Now, my home is wherever God and I agree it should be.”
I used to give to panhandlers. Some panhandlers. Old, sick panhandlers. But it was demeaning: for them, because handouts encourage debasing behavior like begging; for me, because I was letting myself off easy, not really giving enough.
Then I made an acquaintance, if you can call it that, of a certain man.
I know it’s not fashionable, not Christian, not . . . hip, somehow, to hold the homeless accountable for their actions. But still.
This man is young, about twenty-five, whip-thin, clean, well dressed; he doesn’t seem to be drinking or doing drugs, doesn’t gabble like a lunatic. He’s just bone mean. He appeared suddenly in my neighborhood, shaking his cup. When I passed him the first day, he screamed at me. I refuse to walk a different route; the result is two or three confrontations a day. He calls me names. He told my daughter that though she’s only seven, she’s a whore. (“But Mom,” she whispered, outraged, “I’m eight.”)
I called the police. I always thought that screaming names at a person and insulting a child were illegal. They’re not. In Washington, DC, it’s perfectly okay to call people names and disrupt their lives.
One detective thought it was a joke, like a bully getting the better of a little goody-two-shoes on the playground. A second officer took it more seriously, but said that the government had repealed the anti-loitering statutes.
So now I’m a forty-six-year-old woman, alone with a child, dreading the walk down my block each day. What about human compassion, “love thy neighbor,” positive thinking regarding the homeless? What about me? I would like to walk to the post office in peace.
I live in the middle of Manhattan, between the U.N. and Grand Central Station, two blocks from a homeless hostel. On Lexington Avenue, subway grates lend heat to the homeless. Posters on the street portray Christ’s face crowned With thorns, saying, “How can you worship a homeless man on Sundays and ignore him the rest of the week?”
There is a lot of homelessness in my neighborhood. Why should one man touch me so?
He appeared at the height of the summer; he was cleanshaven and carried no baggage.
There is a fire hydrant outside my building. He sat on it as if it were a piece of the world he had colonized for himself. He had pride. He did not beg, and he tried to make eye contact. He sat on the fire hydrant every morning as I passed by. Sometimes he would be there in the evening, too, drinking fruit juice or coffee.
I went once to serve at a lunch for the homeless in one of the churches. I thought I might see him there — only an idle thought.
Many homeless people say they don’t like to sleep in the hostels because of the drugs and alcohol. On the street where I live are two of the city’s most expensive restaurants. Stretch limos crowd that side of the street some evenings. On the other side, the second story of a building extends beyond the first, offering shelter. The homeless claim their sleeping spaces with pieces of cardboard and supermarket carts loaded with cans redeemable for ten cents.
The man sleeps there now. He looks at me with recognition when we see each other. We never speak.
I am worried that one day he will speak to me. I will no longer be protected from his homelessness. I will have to give him something. I have a one-bedroom apartment. I wonder if I shouldn’t invite him to stay for a while to get back on his feet, but I’m too scared to do that.
He is beginning to slip now. He has grown a beard. His hair is too long. He leaves black plastic bags by the fire hydrant when he isn’t there. When he sits on it now he does a curious thing with his eyes. He rolls them up and back into his head so that he can’t see the world.
New York, New York