April 8, 1993
THE EPICENTER of homelessness in New York City extends from 96th Street south to 72nd Street on the West Side and includes Riverside Park and the whole of Central Park. I discovered this yesterday almost by accident. At around 6:30, just as an inappropriately florid setting sun added a touch of delusional grandeur to the West Side skyline, evoking visions of late-afternoon cocktails on penthouse balconies, I sat down on one of the benches in the median of Broadway at 96th Street. My benchmate was an aging white man with white hair, who later introduced himself to me as Ralph. He wore the universal badge of the wandering homeless (as opposed to those who dwell in the City's shelter system): a couple of plastic bags filled with what appeared to be his personal belongings. When I introduced myself, he offered me a cigarette, but I politely declined. Then he offered me a cookie. Since I try to avoid sugar and processed food, I passed again. Ralph wasn't put off by my fastidiousness, though, and a few minutes later he pulled a half-full bottle of gin out of his coat pocket. I may be a bit of a health nut, but I do have a weakness for gin, especially with a little tonic and lemon. I quickly bought some of each in a nearby deli and returned, along with a couple of coffee cups I'd filched. Ten minutes later, Ralph and I were old friends, and the warm glow of the setting sun was slowly transfused into our bodies through the medium of gin and tonic.
As we were about to finish off the bottle, a woman ambled by with a bag full of sandwiches and handed two of them to Ralph, who passed me one. "This looks like shelter food," was my immediate assessment. The sandwiches were in the tell-tale cardboard containers with see-through plastic tops that mark almost all food you get in the shelter system. I figured maybe it came from either the Park Avenue shelter on East 66th Street, the Lexington Avenue Armory on East 26th Street, or the Bellevue shelter on East 30th Street.
"Yes, it is," Ralph replied. "What's-a-matter, you don't like it?"
"No, it's not that," I said. Turning up my nose at free food might have blown my cover. I pointed to his plastic bags. "You seem to avoid the shelter system, yet you accept shelter food."
I looked at the woman, who seemed put off by my remarks. She had the anonymous look of a shelter woman, but how can I describe this to you? I come from a country in Africa where we have 237 different ethnic groups. I can tell which group an individual is from just by looking at him or her, but if you're not from Cameroon it would be hard for me to explain exactly how I do it. By the same token, after having lived among the homeless for three years, I know a homeless person when I see one, even if she isn't carrying all her possessions in plastic bags. This one was wearing a white skirt with red stripes and a red sweater, both nondescript. She had probably gotten these surplus sandwiches from the shelter staff and was distributing them to that subset of the homeless who choose to live outside the shelters. The two cultures often support each other through their own homespun network of solidarity.
The woman sucked her teeth and looked me over, trying to size me up. Was I some kind of outside agitator? Having judged against me, she stood up disgustedly and strode off quickly, as if she had a lot of deliveries to make before the sun went down. I've found that no matter how much time I spend in the shelters, I cannot fully take on the demeanor of a homeless person, the beaten-up attitude, the paradoxical blend of submissiveness and anger--for instance, I have an unnerving habit of looking people right in the eye when I speak to them. For this reason, until they get to know me better the homeless often sense that I am out of place.
"Listen, young man," Ralph remarked, "what I avoid are the shelter rules. Shit like `You are required to make your bed every day. Don't even think of doing drugs here. Sign for your bed every night.'"
Sitting on that bench with rush hour traffic rumbling all around him, there was something august in Ralph's bearing, like a chief surveying his small kingdom. I felt a great deal of respect for the man.
"I understand that, Pap," I whispered. "Pap" is street jargon for "father" or "elder." It's used as a mark of respect by younger people to older folks.
I ate my sandwich. The bologna and cheap cheese tasted a lot better with gin and tonic. By eight o'clock, the sun had set and Ralph stood up. "I've got to go," he said.
Two bags, I figured, were too much for him to carry. I offered to help, but he declined. I insisted, wanting an excuse to follow him on his nightly rounds. He announced that he was going underground and headed toward the subway entrance on the corner. To my amazement, he beat the fare, shouting obscenities at two transit cops who did their best to look like they hadn't noticed him. Less courageous than Ralph, I approached them. "This is his bag I'm carrying for him," I started. "Can I--"
"Pay your fare, sir!" the first one said.
"If you don't, I'll give you a summons!" the second one said.
I put in a token and went through the turnstile with my plastic bag. The Number 2 train took us to 14th Street, where we got off. Instead of going toward the exit, Ralph descended the stairs that led down to the tracks. I followed him along the tracks until he disappeared through a doorway; this led into a corridor that ran parallel to the tracks. What I discovered in the belly of the station left me speechless. After walking a bit farther, we came upon a large shanty. You can tell the age of shanties by the amount of material piled up in and around them. Homeless people carry one bag at a time, so a newly built shanty looks quite empty. This one was old and well-provisioned.
I was in a subterranean shantytown, a Dantean nightmare of a place where lost souls wandered aimlessly as if in a trance, which many of them undoubtedly were. The odor was fetid, what in French we would have called pestilence. The only light was extremely faint, provided by dull yellow bulbs. These inhabitants, I learned later, are known as the Mole People. In retrospect, I can see why some folks wonder if the homeless are human, because beings like this don't fit the definition. This is not a condescending thing to say; on the contrary, it's quite accurate. I, too, have had to ask myself if these people are human, especially the Mole People. I have been ashamed of myself for asking that question, but nevertheless I have asked it.
It should come as no surprise that stratification exists even among the poor; the strongest poor will victimize the weaker poor. On many occasions during my sojourn in the shelters, another homeless person has told me to move along because I didn't belong there. I was taking up his space, and if I didn't move he might get violent. And so, to avoid confrontation and its attendant threat of violence, the very lowest echelon has to descend, not only mentally but physically, to a place where they are not visible, where nobody else will push them around.
We like to think that we are the center of creation, but if that's true, it can only be because we have the capacity to stop and hear the cry of those who are not as fortunate as we are, and to do something about it. That's why we protect the endangered species of the world, the Siberian tiger, the gray owl. We should do the same thing for the Mole People, but, for better or worse, the drama in an individualistic society is that we expect everyone to fight for his place in the sun. In Africa, you don't have to fight for a spot, because the village belongs to everybody. But here . . . .
I shook a few hands and said a few hellos to the denizens of this place, who were more interested in Ralph and what he brought them. Ralph put his belongings in one of the shanties, which I supposed was his, and a minute later was off again. I had a decision to make: stay there and explore that eerie underworld at my own risk, or stick to my original plan of following Ralph. It took me less than a minute to realize that I could be in danger down there, where I knew no one and had little idea of what to expect. To be honest, I felt overcome by the squalor of the place, much more even than the first night I had spent in a homeless shelter. I scrambled after Ralph as he climbed the stairs.
We took the train back up to 72nd Street and then headed toward Riverside Park. At that hour of the night, everyone in the park--and there seemed to be someone on every bench and under every tree--was homeless, and Ralph seemed to know them all. Each time we bumped into a gathering of more than three people, Ralph sat down and chatted for a few minutes. His characteristic greeting was, "How is life treating you?"
Two things struck me more than any other. First was the civility of these often gentle people. Several times we were offered tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, as if we had walked into their kitchen or living room on a chilly, early spring night. Second, I had the impression that they all held Ralph in great esteem, that he was every bit the local chieftain he had appeared to be on that bench in the Broadway median. I felt as though the man was showing me his domain and all his dependents. At one point, as we were walking from one group of people to another, he touched my arm. When I looked at him, he asked, "Are you one of us?"
"Just consider me a friend," I answered.
"You come from which shelter?"
"How do you know I come from a shelter?"
"The moment you identified the food, the shelter food, remember? I knew you were closer to me than I first thought. And you're at home with us. You had no qualms about sharing a drink with me. Is there an odor? You don't seem to smell it. Weren't you ready to spend the night at 14th Street?"
I laughed. His clear-sightedness astonished me. I laughed harder. I wanted Ralph to let his guard down.
"I live at Sumner House," I replied, referring to the shelter in Brooklyn that was my latest residence.
"I knew it," he chuckled. "But aren't you a long way from your base?"
"You know very well, Pap, that the homeless have no base. We come and go, unattached like the wind. We come and go, depending on parameters we don't control."
"Yeah, man," he sighed. "But why do I have the impression that you're playing with me? There's something about you that doesn't fit my idea of a homeless person."
"You said it yourself, Pap. It's only an impression."
We walked past two other groups trying to fix up a place for the night. Ralph remained silent when we were alone. I cleared my throat. "May I ask you a question?"
"What?" he said with no sound of annoyance in his voice.
"I mean no disrespect . . ."
"Go ahead, son."
"Earlier today, you said to me that I'm very much `at home' with you. That's the expression you used. `At home.' Someone else would have said, `at ease.' Was this intentional? Did you mean something other than what I heard?"
"Nope. It wasn't a slip of the tongue. But don't worry about it."
I let it go. As we were walking back across 96th Street toward Central Park, we saw a big, strong black guy arguing with two police officers next to a squad car. Ralph stopped and considered the situation. I guess he figured there was nothing to worry about and walked away, mumbling. "Society's to blame, not the Rogue."
"Who's the Rogue?" I asked.
"Larry, the guy getting harassed by the police there. He's a vet--one of these guys who, in Vietnam, just wanted to come home. They came home, all right, only to discover that home was abandoned cars in vacant lots and ugly armories turned into shelters. One day, he said, `Fuck that shit, man.' Since then, he's haunted this area."
That was the first I'd heard of Larry the Rogue. He would be much in the news later as "The Crazy Man of 96th Street."
"What am I missing here?" I asked. The fact is, of course, I had missed plenty. During the war, I was still a young kid growing up in the former African colony of Cameroon. About the time Larry and his friends were having their souls turned inside out in Nam, I was being initiated into the cultural secrets of my people, the Bassa. Since then, I'd been a political prisoner, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the Sorbonne, and an exile from France. For the last year and a half, I'd been living in the homeless shelters of New York City. But I was still a long way from understanding this culture.
"What do you want to understand," Ralph was asking, "other than going back to the '60s, Vietnam, napalm bombs, the Civil Rights movement, the FBI, the Black Panthers--a party that had more infiltrators than genuine members."
"How do you know?"
"I was one of them," he said, standing still suddenly and looking straight at me. "Me, a white boy. That, right there, should tell you something."
"Then what happened?" I was eager to get the point he was trying to make.
"Sooner or later," he continued, "you have to look back and take stock. You realize the silliness of life in general. Man, how your involvement in something potentially great can undermine the whole process and take society back to the Dark Ages! The mechanism broke inside. That's what's going on here."
"What else did you realize, Pap?"
"Look at New York life. Look how much the artificial covers real life. Look to what extent Lazarus is on the wealthy man's doorstep and the rich guy doesn't see him. Yet he goes to church every week and hears about the parable in the Gospels and doesn't see that it's him they're talking about. I decided not to be part of this nonsense no more."
I wondered if Ralph was saying that he, like me, was voluntarily homeless. It didn't seem likely, and I needed to hear more of his story, but he'd stopped talking for the moment and begun walking again. We reached Central Park West and then Ralph took us into the Park.
Central Park is a huge place, but at night it looks even larger, daunting. Not for Ralph, though, who knows exactly where to go and who will answer when he calls. At every spot we visited, we found a warm place and people in it. Ralph reminds me of the Bedouins in the Sahara desert; wherever they stop, there is water. You or I would look around and wouldn't have the slightest idea that water could be there, but the Bedouin knows. In the Park, there are rock formations and caves and overpasses where people can live but where you or I would just see a pleasant landscape.
It was in one of these underground places that Ralph introduced me to four couples who were living there --for three years, one of the women told me. We were served rum, as well as sandwiches that had nothing to do with shelter food.
"That's a nice place," I acknowledged when we left.
"Yeah, my friend," Ralph replied. "You wouldn't imagine how many people in this city have alternative lifestyles just to beat a system that offers them close to nothing. The mayor of this city and his clique don't pay rent. Why should we?"
We heard hasty footsteps behind us. Ralph stopped and turned calmly. "Hey, what's happening?" he asked the guy who was running after us. "How is life treating Bensley?"
"Yo, man, guess what happened to me last week?" Bensley asked. He was breathing fast.
"I was walking on the lawn, right near 61st Street, when I spotted an attaché case on the ground. I opened it. Filled with papers. There was a name and address. I took it to the owner, around Columbus Circle. He told me someone broke into his car and stole his briefcase, his wallet, everything. I was so sorry. But guess what?"
"He gave me a hundred bucks."
"Good, man! Good. That was his way of showing his appreciation, you know that, right?"
"I know, Pap, I know, but . . ."
"The hundred bucks. It was a check."
I was about to witness the unexpected. Ralph took the check Bensley handed him, made sure he endorsed it over to him, reached into his pocket, and handed him a hundred dollars in twenty-dollar bills.
"Thank you, Pap," Bensley said. A minute later, he had disappeared into the dark.
"You seem financially well-endowed," I commented as we continued our walk.
"You sound just like these guys around here. They all think I'm rich. Okay with me if it makes you happy to think that. But that's crap. What I do, everyone can do. And even better."
"I have a question," I said.
"Tell me a little bit about yourself, Pap."
"What do you want to know?"
"The turning point of your life."
"When I came out of jail some years ago," he said, mentioning his incarceration for the first time, "I was tired of living on the margin. I put a personal ad in the major New York newspapers. Over fifty women responded. How am I going to pick one? It came naturally. I went to visit this one named Barbara at her work place, a hospital. She was working in an AIDS ward and I was so impressed by her dedication that I complimented her. Do you know what she told me?"
"She said, `It's nothing.' She added that her patients were little angels and that they'll remember her in heaven. When she said that, I started shaking. This is the effect compassion for others has on me. Right there I knew she was the one. A woman of principle--moreover, a woman of generosity and compassion."
Ralph talked like that, as if he'd done a lot of reading somewhere along the line. He held my hand. "Isn't it what we all want?" he asked.
"Where is she now?"
"In heaven, man. Each time I truly enjoy something in my life, it's taken away from me. But before she died, she said `Take care of my angels.' The mistake I made was to swear to do it. Sometimes, it's so hard that I want to quit. But I remember my promise and I'm strong again."
A few minutes later, Ralph spotted a tree and sat down. "I'll end my day here," he said. I sat down too and noticed that the ground was warm, and I smiled. When he fell asleep, I disappeared. It was 5 a.m. and still dark. I could be back at Sumner House in time for breakfast.
* * *
THERE ARE 27 shelters for single men and women in the five boroughs of New York City--19 for men and eight for women. Between 1992 and 1995, I spent time and slept in all eight of New York's "armory" shelters and experienced first-hand the hopelessness and despair that is the hallmark of such human warehouses. On occasion, I also slept in the streets and in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. The longer I stayed in the shelter system, the more I began to consider homelessness from a spiritual perspective, wondering what its message might be for the rest of us. I sought answers in the scriptures of all the great traditions--the texts of ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christi-anity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
From my study I learned that the Bible puts no pressure on the homeless to change their lives, but turns instead to the rulers of the land. "Build cities of refuge for both the Children of Israel and the strangers among them!" says the Lord. So much of the teaching in both the Old and New Testaments has to do with caring for those less fortunate than ourselves, providing them with food, shelter, and clothing. The same is true of the Quran. Homeless people are seen as lost sheep who need bringing back into the fold. "Woe to those who pray but are heedless in their prayer," says Allah, "who make a show of piety and give no alms to the destitute." In the last stage of their lives, religious Hindus surrender their ties to family and possessions and set off as wandering mendicants called sannyasins to seek self-realization. Buddhist monks are exhorted not to stay anywhere long and to beg for their food each day. But it is one thing to choose homelessness, as Jesus and the Buddha did, and quite another to have homelessness thrust upon you.
From the men I met in the shelter system, I came to understand the meaning of both simplicity and humility. I learned about the connection between homelessness and what I would call "not-at-homeness," the rootless state so many of us find ourselves in today. I saw how "education" can divide society into haves and have-nots. I even recognized how much divorce contributes to homelessness, because when people divorce each wants his or her own place; marital unrest contributes to the scarcity of housing and the rise in rents.
During the years I spent in the shelter system, I kept a journal describing the conditions and the people I met there, both residents and workers, the efforts we made to find a way out of the situation, and the possibilities for the future. At first I carried around a small microcassette recorder, then a notebook to record our conversations. Like most social groups, homeless people have their own jargon; among other things, they use more four-letter words than most people. They seem to perceive everything that comes from society as shit; if you try to reason with them, they say you're talking shit. Every other word is "shit," "fuck," or "motherfucker." I stopped writing down the epithets when I transcribed their dialogue because they became meaningless (I haven't included them here for much the same reason). Finally I stopped using the recorder and notepad altogether, because they made me feel too much distance between myself and them, my "subjects." Even though I always knew I could walk away from the homeless life if things got too hard, I eventually came to identify fully with their situation, and to choose to join them. But maybe I'd better begin at the beginning.
November 4, 1992. Election Day, 11 p.m.
It feels as though the entire country is celebrating the election of a new president. I have been to countless parties in the course of the night, including a big bash at City Hall, and by now I'm full, drunk, and happy. My friend, Big Joe, has dropped me off at the corner of 51st Street and Lexington Avenue.
I pull up the collar of my coat and rush to the subway, suddenly realizing that the food and alcohol in my system have infused me with a false warmth; the thermometer is flirting with the freezing point and the wind has a nasty New York edge to it. That's when I spot a human form curled up on the ground, apparently asleep. It seems like a dangerous time to be crashing outdoors, so I stop and walk over. "Why are you sleeping here?" I inquire. "Why don't you check into a shelter?"
"Ain't goin' to no fuckin' shelter!" the form replies firmly. This is when I notice that it is a woman.
"There's plenty of food everywhere tonight," I continue. "America is celebrating its new chief executive."
"I don't care," she says. "Leave me alone."
I see that it's useless to try to get her to change her mind, so I stand up and look for a pay phone. There is one across the street. I've been in the country a little over three years, enough to be familiar with such sights but not quite enough to realize the remedies aren't always so simple or apparent.
"911? This is an emergency call!" I shout into the receiver.
"I'm listening," replies a female voice at the other end.
"There's a woman dying on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 51st Street. Please send an ambulance immediately. If she spends the night here, she won't make it until tomorrow morning."
"All right! All right! Calm down. The ambulance is on its way."
I hang up and go back to the woman.
The ambulance is there in no time. I want to go to the hospital to make sure she'll be okay, but because I am not a family member the paramedics don't want to hear about it. Before being taken away, the woman looks at me and says, "All souls live together forever."
I enter the subway station, intending to catch the E train to Queens, where I live, but something holds me back. What is it? I still don't know exactly. I feel as though I've been punched in the stomach. The American media has made it seem as if this kind of thing happens only in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Yet if I told the vignette I've just witnessed to folks in Kinshasa, Zaire, no one would believe me. I sit down on a bench and begin to wonder why anyone would prefer to die on a street corner rather than check into a homeless shelter.
November 5, 12 noon.
My body is almost numb. I've been sitting on this subway bench for the past thirteen hours. It's now midday. The only thing that saved me last night is the coat I'm wearing, which comes from Russia and was designed for Siberian winters. When I have it on, New York is never cold. Still, I feel chilled to my bones.
I have to make a decision: Shall I go home to my warm bed, or shall I try to find out why people are sleeping on the streets, what can be causing this, and what their hellish lives are like?
Somehow, without going through any kind of rational process, I make my decision. Before I know it, I am at the offices of the Coalition for the Homeless on 8th Avenue and 36th Street. All I want from them is the address of a shelter where I can check in tonight.
"Hi, can I help you?" the black receptionist asks.
"I have nowhere to go," I tell her. "I'm looking for a shelter."
She turns to a white guy she calls Bro. "Would you take care of him?" she asks.
"Of course!" he says to her, and to me, whispers, "Come with me."
There is something extremely peaceful in Bro's face. I sense that he has been homeless himself at some time. I give him my name, which he writes on a referral and hands to me with a token. No stranger has ever given me a token in New York City. "Take this note to Atlantic," he tells me. "It's a shelter in Brooklyn. You'll have a bed for the night. The C train will take you there. Get off at Franklin Station and then it's only a few blocks away."
He never asks me why or when or how I became homeless. I like that. I walk out with a smile and head for the subway.
When I arrive at the shelter, I realize that I've passed it several times before, but because it's an armory I always assumed it was an army center and that the bums outside it were young men on their way into the military. I never suspected that these ugly buildings are used to house the homeless.
I walk in and hand the referral to a guard. "Wait here!" he orders. There is nothing friendly in his voice. "Here" is somewhere between the front door and the check-in point.
Fifteen minutes later, he comes back and points to an office door. At the check-in point, I have to go through a metal detector. Inside the office, a black woman sits behind the desk. She is so somber, she looks as though she has come directly from a funeral. I am the only person there but it takes her nearly ten minutes to fill out a temporary meal ticket, which could be done in less than a minute. "Dinner is between 5 and 6 p.m.," she says in a lackluster voice. "New clients are not allowed in the sleeping areas before 10 p.m. You'll get a bed and linen then, that is, two sheets and a blanket between 10 and 11."
She speaks very slowly. Everything this woman does is in slo-mo. Maybe what I took for solemnity is just a kind of numbness. I leave the room and proceed to the lobby, which is huge and completely empty. I wander around until someone who perhaps perceives some kind of disarray in my eyes directs me to the recreation room on the second floor. Arriving there, I stop. I am overcome by a sense of déjà-vu, as if I'm suddenly face to face with some part of my past, maybe even my ancestral past.
* * *
I WAS BORN in 1955 in Cameroon, a nation of 183,545 square miles and a population of 12 million on the coast of Central Africa, just north of the Equator. My people, the Bassa, a warlike group, occupy a territory called Ad i Bassa, a land within the central African rain forest, itself second in size only to the Amazon. My father, a successful physician, is known in the village as "the Deacon" because, in addition to holding a prominent position in the clan, he is a Roman Catholic permanent deacon. So I was brought up in both the Catholic religion and the traditional ways of the Bassa. When I turned thirteen, I underwent the initiation ritual of the Bassa, meaning that I spent ninety days in the bush with twenty-five other boys and Samnik Mapuna, our initiator. We not only learned how to hunt and forage for edible plants and roots, but we were also instructed in the sacred arts of going within, of seeing with the third eye, of taking journeys with the aid of sacred brew, and of communicating with "the other side." "Know yourself" was the instruction Samnik gave us, although I don't think he'd ever read Plato. "That's the purpose of life. And it is through service to others that you will attain knowledge of your true self."
Among the Bassa, Nkol is the word used for a slave, but people of the Middle Passage, those who were taken to the Americas as slaves, are referred to as Bot-babi-sem-i-Kon--literally, "people exiled for [mystical] work." When I was growing up, I heard thousands of stories about those who had been sold into slavery. No family is without several Bot-babi-sem-i-Kon. I can't count how many of my great-uncles, aunts, and cousins were "exiled to Kon." Some aspects of this tragedy are ironic. The elders told me that no white man was strong or ambitious enough to enter our forests to capture us. "One of our own number, through jealousy, hate, or greed," they would say, "captured and sold his own brother, sister, son, or daughter to the white man."
In Bassaland today, there is not a single Nkol left, but it is common knowledge that people are still being sent into exile to Kon. How is this possible? Someone dies and is buried. Now, does he die or is he drugged so as to appear dead? Is it really he who is buried or is it a chimp or a tree trunk that is placed in the casket while the person himself is transported elsewhere? It is said that when he is handed over to the white man, each victim sails across the endless sea and awakens as a zombie in another time and place. Not only will he never return, but he will spend the rest of his life performing mystical work.
From the age of four until I was thirteen, I dreamed of these people, their life, and their appearance. I wondered about the work they did, and I imagined the country where they dwelled. And now, here in the shelter, I see before me the place I had envisioned. And these guys look exactly the way I had pictured them: zombies. I am in hell, having to mingle, eat, and sleep with zombies. And yet at the same time, it's an astonishing social experiment crying out to be studied. What American professors come to Africa to do, I can do right here, only better. There are at least six hundred men in this room; in African villages you would be lucky to find a sample of three hundred people. My anthropological instincts come alive.
Most of the men are watching a sitcom on a television set on a desk on the otherwise empty stage. I sit down in a corner. What I am seeing here is impossible. I cannot believe that men can look like this, dress like this, smell like this. In Africa and Europe, we have been led to believe that African Americans all look like Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Several of these men have forgotten to shower for months; their hair is matted, unkempt. Some are lying on the floor, others are stretched out on three chairs--head on one, rear end on another, heels on a third. Those who sit upright are either Rastafarians, mentally ill, or drug addicts. A few are smoking, which makes the room a little foggy, but I notice that for each cigarette, there are at least three smokers. I ask myself why the authorities of this particular shelter have chosen to throw together the sick, the mentally ill, alcoholics, and drug addicts. I don't know as yet that I am in what they call a "general population shelter." But it's clear that armories were not designed for human beings. Its proportions are too large, the ceilings are too high; the rec room is really an old gymnasium that still has the faded markings of a basketball court painted on the floor.
At 4:30, a worker arrives and with no warning turns off the TV. I wait for someone to voice a complaint, to demand some respect, but these exiles to Kon just stand up and start forming a line. "For dinner," my neighbor tells me. I can't shake the feeling that I'm watching one of those awful black-and-white movies that come on TV at three in the morning. Only this one combines two genres: the asylum melodrama and the low-budget horror film involving hordes of wandering zombies.
Dinner is at five. "Clients," as the shelters' residents are euphemistically known, leave the recreation room en masse. I follow them onto a very long line that at least moves mercifully fast. The drill is simple. You get on line, grab a tray, and pile food on it cafeteria-style: a half-pint container of milk, one box of beans, one box of mashed potatoes, chicken, hamburger patties. Shelter food comes in little boxes no larger than a box of wooden oven matches, usually with a clear plastic covering, suitable for freezing and heating by microwave oven. Coffee and tea are prepared in big urns and served in styrofoam cups. Everything is disposable, including the plastic utensils. Naturally, all the food that gets heated cannot be returned to the freezers or otherwise stored. It has to be used somehow, and I suspect that the excess is taken home by the staff to feed their families.
After I get my food, I wait for a chair to be free and sit down, but I can't bring myself to eat. I know that this food is over-processed, that any food cooked for so many people at once and prepared so far in advance can't be good. My neighbor, who reads my mind, taps me on the back. "Hey, buddy, I'll swallow it for you," he says with a smile. His mouth is utterly toothless, a condition shared by quite a few of the residents here.
I push my plate toward him, to his great satisfaction, and return to the rec room. At 6 o'clock, old clients go to their respective sleeping areas. I have to wait until 10, even though I need a bed more than anyone else, having slept on a subway bench the night before. The most comfortable place to wait it out is a straight-backed wooden chair. The guy I gave my plate to ma-nages to find an empty chair and sits down next to me.
"The first night in the joint is the most dangerous," he says with conspiratorial vigor. "Beware!"
"Why do you say this to me, my brother?" I ask.
"You obviously don't belong here," he says, running his eyes over my attire. I look at myself and realize that he doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that I am not in my natural habitat. I'm still dressed for the party at City Hall that I attended before my strange odyssey began, with a suit and tie and well-shined shoes.
"Atlantic is a general population shelter," he tells me, "which makes it one of the most dangerous in the area."
I regard my neighbor with new interest, since he seems to know his way around the shelter system.
"What's your name?" I inquire.
"How long have you been in the system?"
"Three years, in and out."
"Oh!" I sigh. He takes my sense of outraged sympathy for genuine alarm.
"Don't panic now," he says soothingly. "Some people have been here seven years and don't plan to leave tomorrow."
I shake my head. "What's a general population shelter?"
"That's the first stop for the homeless before they're sent off to special shelters to suit their needs."
"Their needs? Other than a home?"
"Drug addicts get transferred to detox centers. If you're employable, you get sent to an employability shelter. Men with children go to a family shelter. Clients coming from prison get tickets to go home to Florida, Georgia, or Alabama."
"I sound stupid, huh?"
He looks at me and laughs. "It's all right, man. I know you don't know and you want to know. It's cool."
"So may I ask you a few more questions?"
"Look, man, what'd be best is if I could get a smoke first."
Simmons looks me right in the eye. This I understand. Having been trained as an anthropologist, I've seen the same look elsewhere in my field researches, except that African elders don't ask for a smoke; they ask for liquor. "How much is it?"
For a moment, I think he'll quote me the price of a pack of cigarettes, and I'm prepared to pay--research expenses.
"Two for a quarter."
"Excuse me?" I say, bringing my right ear closer to his mouth.
"Two lucies for a quarter," he explains.
I still don't quite understand.
"Two cigarettes for twenty-five cents. That's the going rate in prison or shelters."
I give him a dollar and he departs. This is a bad miscalculation on my part, as I never see him again. Too bad, because I want to ask him one more question: Why are general population shelters the most dangerous? But that very night I will get my answer.
At ten o'clock, I sign the bed sheet. Bed A91 is unoccupied. "This will be your bed for tonight," says a very unfriendly institutional aide. "For tonight only. Tomorrow, see your caseworker."
"Where can I get linen?"
"Wait for the 12 o'clock shift," he snaps and asks me to walk on so that the next man can sign.
Bed A91 is on the drill floor. There are something like 500 beds in this cavernous space. I am immediately struck by its similarity to a bellyship, the area where slaves were consigned during the long and arduous Middle Passage. Exiles to Kon. An involuntary shudder sweeps over me as I sit down on bed A91.
I don't remember when I fall asleep, but sometime after eleven, lights-out time, I am awakened by shouts.
"What's going on?" I ask my neighbor.
"A new client was just stabbed in the bathroom," he replies matter-of-factly.
"He probably had something his attackers wanted."
I remember what Simmons told me earlier in the rec room. Keep your guard up, I tell myself and go back to sleep on a bed without linen.
* * *
ALTHOUGH I WAS an outsider in the shelter system, a voluntary exile to Kon, you might say, I have lived in exile most of my adult life. At the age of twenty in Cameroon, I was arrested for distributing leaflets in support of a workers' strike and was sentenced without trial or legal representation to four years in detention. Throughout that ordeal, I viewed myself as a freedom fighter. A fighter should be truthful, especially to himself. That's why he's a fighter in the first place. And a killer--in the sense that Thomas Mann uses that word in Tonio Krüger--a killer who permanently kills the ills of his people by piercing them with the arrows of the true word. This hurts, but it also heals.
After I got out of prison, I felt it was unwise to stay in Cameroon, and so I went to the Sorbonne to finish my education in archaeology, also studying anthropology, ethnology, and prehistory. My professors made sure that I understood that humanity had the highest value and that I worked hard to ensure that humankind continue to move toward perfection. "If things are perfect the way they are, God knows we are not yet satisfied with them," was the underlying message. When I asked if logic, rationality, and science were the tools that would assist me in my contribution to human perfection, I was told, once again, "Know yourself."
But the older I get, the more I realize how much I learned just from watching my father and the way he lived his life. At our house there was always an extra place set at the table. Anyone who walked in when the family was having lunch or dinner was welcome, no matter who. They were generally hungry people, and as guests they always received the best service in the house. So I grew up watching my parents serve the needy. And each time I meet a hungry, needy, or homeless person, especially when I'm full and satisfied, I ask how I can help. My father also insisted that my left hand should never know how much my right hand was giving. "Never count the change you spare for the poor," he told me. "And the Father will not count what He sends in your direction."
After some years at the Sorbonne, I no longer felt safe living in Paris. One night, as I was turning the key in the front door to my apartment, a device exploded in the back bedroom and shook the whole building. When I pushed open the door, the kitchen was filling up with smoke. Suddenly the phone rang, and when I picked it up I heard a voice say, "Next time, we'll wait until you're inside." I didn't stick around to investigate, but something told me that the Cameroonian government was unhappy about my political activities in France.
I chose to exile myself to the United States. While living in Paris, I had met an internationally known African-American sculptor who had a house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in St. Albans, Queens, where she had said I could stay. I had also published two plays and a book about my prison experiences in Cameroon, and on the strength of those I was able to obtain a grant from the French government that would allow me to live for quite a while-- especially without having to pay rent. The sculptor traveled frequently to exhibitions and was happy to have me watch her house while she was gone. She also helped me through the tortuous process of obtaining a visa. I presented my doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne on July 3, 1989, and on July 4, Independence Day, I arrived in New York and headed for St. Albans, where I lived until a day ago.
Now I'm living in the belly of a different kind of slave ship, trying to figure out once again exactly what I need to do to survive.
Every day at 5:30 a.m., the lights go back on. Clients have thirty minutes to wash up before breakfast. I learn that breakfast is from 6:30 to 7:30 and the sleeping areas have to be cleared by 8 a.m. sharp, so the cleaning staff can go to work. I ask myself if I am dreaming or if I am really in a new space, a new time, if the Middle Passage of today's Bassa people has anything to do with the historical Middle Passage, commonly known as the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Black Holocaust. And if so, what is the hidden message of all this?
At 8, I have to see my caseworker, a fellow by the name of Chief Olasupo Onanuga. I write my name on his call sheet and sit down in the lobby along with a large number of clients. At one point, a dude appears out of nowhere and starts yelling at people, telling them to leave the area. Without a word, everyone stands up and leaves. He comes toward me and, probably because of the way I'm dressed, passes by without addressing me.
A few minutes later, Chief O. calls my name. Like almost three-quarters of the people working here, he comes from Nigeria, which makes me ask him if the New York shelter system belongs to the Nigerian Government.
"Hell, no!" he replies with force. "We're only aliens with employment authorization lending a helping hand to whoever is willing to give us work."
He makes my assessment in a very brotherly way, especially when he discovers that I am from neighboring Cameroon. "Do you think homeless people are human beings?" I ask him.
After two long minutes, he sighs. "I don't know. Sometimes, I wonder. . ."
He doesn't have to say more. If it takes a human being two minutes to decide whether another person is qualified to be called human, then we already have a problem. A big problem. Luckily, Chief O. decides to take me under his wing. "If you have a problem here, come to me directly," he says. "Anyhow, you will not stay here long enough to have a problem. I'm taking it upon myself to transfer you speedily to another shelter--Sumner House, an employability shelter. It's not far from here and it welcomes clients who are willing and able to accept employment. They'll help you find something to do."
I don't need to see the chief any more. The meal ticket he gives me is good for twenty-one days, and I'm to stay there only thirteen days. A few days later, I am called to the office to be interviewed by a worker from Sumner House. Chief O. has made sure that I am the first on the list.
"Are you ready to accept employment?" the man asks.
"Yes," I answer.
"All right. Take everything you have here, you're going to Sumner House."
A few hours after he asked me to pack, he returns to tell me that there is no bed available at Sumner just yet. I'll have to hang on here a bit longer.
I've been sleeping without bed linen these last three days, although it's not really a problem. For the past 36 years, I've been sleeping with all the linen imaginable and what good has it done me? If I don't want anything human to be foreign to me, I must be willing to experience all human conditions and situations. Now I know how it feels to sleep in a homeless shelter with my clothes on. Yet it's not quite that simple. I sleep in a homeless shelter but I know that somewhere I have a home waiting for me. At this very minute, I can say "Fuck this shit," and go back to my own bed in a brick house in St. Albans. But the six hundred men living here cannot just leave. In fact, they may never be able to find a way out of this mess.
"This is the rawest crew ever," a fellow client named Elijah S. tells me when I ask him about the clients here. "They'll cut your throat for a cigarette and not lose a night's sleep over it."
"Where do they all come from?" I ask.
"Drugs, drugs, drugs," he replies.
It's nighttime. I still cannot eat in this environment. I have been surviving by eating whatever shelter food is not precooked and packaged--bread, butter, chocolate--and by occasionally slipping out to MacDonald's for a Big Mac. I hate to say it, but the idea of sitting next to these outcasts is abhorrent to me. Am I ready to relate to them as brothers? We do not choose our kin, but am I ready to choose them as my friends? Why can't I bear to touch them, look at them, eat next to them? And yet, since the day my anthropological bell rang, my relationship with the residents has changed gradually. I'm afraid to relate to them only as case studies any longer, afraid that it is not moral to remain distant from their suffering, even when some of it is self-imposed.
Even though I can't eat in this shelter, I still come to the dining room and carry a plate to the table. These walking dead watch me as closely as I watch them. There's always movement around me because they know that whoever sits in front of me will have my plate and can trade whatever he does not want to eat for a cigarette. As I sit and watch, I notice that they offer juice for pancakes or milk for a sandwich-- sometimes getting what they want, sometimes not-- but the real currency is cigarettes. Cigarette for juice, pancakes, or milk is the magic word. Money does not ever seem to be involved.
My disgust has gone away, and for the first time I can eat shelter food. I have always found it very upsetting that American and European anthropologists and ethnologists come to Africa and make Africans the object of their studies. Nupe, Yoruba, Bassa, Mangbetu, and other tribes are still being featured in doctoral dissertations. But I also studied the reactions of these anthropologists when they came to a Bassa village and had Bassa food set in front of them for the first time. I know that the struggle I have had in eating shelter food is similar to their struggle, and so I take strength from that.
I am also no longer aware of the stench. I went back to my house in Queens and changed my clothes, although I didn't bring jeans. My African pants, which are ample and very comfortable, are more suitable here. I've learned to fit in better: I don't comb my hair, which makes me look like I may be slightly deranged. If that sounds extreme, consider how meticulous even the most destitute African-American males are when it comes to their hair. Their clothes may be thin and worn, they may forget to bathe for months, to clean their teeth for years, wash their feet or change their socks and underwear, but one thing is certain: their hair will be clean, well cut, shining, and combed. They always seem to carry a pick in their pockets; even the most radical, the most revolutionary African-American males make sure their hair is combed at all times. In Africa, what distinguishes a non-conformist is his hair. The first act of African revolutionaries is to break their picks. In so doing, they are saying, "To hell with the rake and the field and the whole international system of exploitation." The comb symbolizes the rake, the hair is the cotton field, and anyone combing his hair is a slave. I haven't put a pick to my hair in 20 years, and I don't feel bad about it. In this environment, though, this says that I'm different--bad, dangerous. Maybe that's why the other residents don't mess with me, because they know that I could be crazy. If they mess with me, they may die and I won't even be prosecuted. Yesterday, when I was given a toilet kit, I discovered two picks in it especially designed for Afros. When the institutional aide who gave me the kit saw me today, he immediately looked at my hair. I think I intrigue him.
Every day after breakfast, the clients converge on the rec room, where they can watch television, play cards, chess, or backgammon, shoot pool, or work out in the gym. Case managers start coming to work at eight, and clients who want meal tickets or tokens can see them. I notice that relationships between clients and their case workers don't go very smoothly. The clients are a rough crowd, and when they want to see a case worker, they expect action. "That's their job!" they say. "Their job is to see me when I need to see them, and give me what I need now!" These same guys I watched lining up obediently and marching into lunch and dinner like marionettes suddenly become infuriated when they have to wait for their case worker. This is strangely contradictory behavior for people who at times seem like complacent zombies. Apparently their anger and resentment at the system simmers just below the surface.
"How many clients do you see on average each morning?" I ask Chief O. I have walked into his office only to chat.
"Twelve to sixty," he answers.
"Sixty? Are you kidding me?"
"Not at all."
"How many clients do you have in your caseload?"
"Anywhere from 45 to 60."
"I just can't believe that."
"Listen, young man," he says, becoming serious. "As winter approaches, there'll be over 800 clients in this shelter. And I'll end up with anything from 80 to 120 clients in my caseload."
I want to learn more. "How are clients assigned to managers?"
"I get all the clients whose names start with A, B, or C. It's as simple as that."
From what I can see, caseworkers try to do right by their clients, but I can also understand why they may come to hate the idea of showing up every morning. I don't rule out the resentment they may harbor at having to care for men, sometimes healthier and stronger than they are, who "live off the city."
On the other hand, I don't know how the men who dwell in these shelters can stand the regimentation. Lunch is from eleven to one. Then clients go back to the rec room until 4:30, when sleeping areas re-open, until it's time for dinner at five. For every service here, clients have to show their meal tickets, which function as both ID and pass. At 5 o'clock, signing up for dinner is also signing up for your bed that night. If you miss dinner, you can still sign up for your bed between 10 and 11 p.m., but you lose your bed if you miss that deadline. Still, you can usually get another one. Some clients come at five, sign for their beds, and disappear until the next day. Curfew is at 11 p.m. After that, no one is allowed in the building without a late pass, which he has to secure during the day from his case worker.
The rigidity of this schedule explains why some homeless people avoid city shelters and prefer the streets or the underground tunnels. This is not the place for an independent spirit, or anyone who needs even a modicum of privacy. At least in their shanties, they are free to come and go as they please; in shelters, nothing belongs to them and they are always open to scrutiny by both the shelter authorities and their fellow homeless.
What's even more disturbing to me is the realization that these men don't seem to understand what's happening to them--especially the veterans and African Americans, who represent twelve percent of the American people but seventy percent of the homeless population in New York City. Hispanics have more energy and tend to grab the first opportunity that materializes in front of them. No one leaves Guatemala, for whatever reason, to die in a shelter.
The men here have so little initiative that I wouldn't be surprised if they obeyed an instruction to walk into a gas chamber. It's amazing how easily they let themselves be stripped and checked by security guards, how they obey shelter rules, how they let themselves be verbally molested, abused, harassed. Their spirits have been broken as thoroughly as any prison inmate.
Rob is a big black guy who is losing his hair. "Cancer!" he tells me. Chemotherapy. He seems to like my company, and during breakfast he even asks me if I'd walk him to the welfare center. I've never been to a welfare center and I'm curious to find out what goes on there.
The place is filled with people who have the same dull, glazed-eyed, compliant look as the clients at Atlantic. Are they all homeless too, jobless, on drugs?
"Most of them are not first-generation recipients of welfare," Rob informs me. "Grandma was on welfare. Mom was on welfare. What's wrong with me if I'm on welfare? For a man who has worked all his life to come here and wait in line is the most degrading thing on earth, but to most of 'em it's business as usual."
Rob goes on to critique the Reagan and Bush administrations, but of all the things he says, one strikes me more than the rest. Instead of "Grandma was on welfare, Mom was on welfare," I would say, "Grandpa was on welfare" and "Dad was on welfare." This is truly a matriarchal, matrilinear culture.
I leave Atlantic Men's Shelter for Sumner this morning at around eleven. "Make sure you go there directly," says the man from Sumner House. I haven't seen him since my previous interview ten days ago. Now he gives me a token.
"It's just a few blocks away," advises another client who is being transferred to Sumner. "We can walk and save a token, y'know?"
And so we do.