November 18, 1992 - May 5, 1993
February 24, 1993
I'm walking in the vicinity of Sumner House, a
converted armory in the
Bed-Sty section of Brooklyn, where I've been living for the past three
months. It's a bleakly cold winter day and traces of snow and slush are
still on the
ground from the most recent storm in a seemingly endless string of
bitter storms. Even so, the streets are full of skeezers, who dart
about poorly dressed but
oblivious to the weather. Skeezers are women who prostitute themselves
for drugs rather than money. They do their best to make themselves look
but it just never gels. Some are vaguely pretty, but then they open
to smile and reveal missing teeth. Like everything else about the
these women inhabit a different world, and so their attractiveness
judged by normal standards: toothless skeezers are often the most
because of their facility for oral sex.
Skeezers walk up to me all the time on my way
to and from the shelter, and
the pantomime is always the same. They ask for a cigarette, and then a
light. Even though I don't smoke, I always carry cigarettes on me
because it's easy to
make friends sharing them on the streets and in the shelters. So when
women ask for a cigarette, I always pull one out. Once I do, they ask
light, but they're not really looking for a smoke. The whole purpose of
pantomime is to get you to stop. While you light their cigarette, they
softly, conspiratorially, "What can I do for your entertainment?"
On occasion, entrepreneurs from the adult
entertainment business centered in
Times Square hire skeezers, dress them and clean them up as best they
put them to work in peep shows and as prostitutes, because it's cheaper
them a few vials of crack at two to five dollars apiece than to pay the
March 30, 8 p.m.
I glide quietly through snowy Marcus Garvey
Boulevard. I've been wondering
about the skeezers now for the past month, asking my friend Michael
them. I met Michael here at Sumner House, but he has a different look
other homeless and I wanted to learn his story. Michael Bell came from
family, had a college education, and refuses to blame either the system
parents for being where he is. At one time, he was a diamond cutter
grand a year, and married a woman with two children from a previous
marriage. One of her sons got busted for dealing and when Michael went
to visit him in
prison, the boy suggested that Michael take over his drug business to
pay for his
legal fees. Michael wanted to show his wife that he loved her son, and
twisted logic he began dealing himself, but then he also began using
he had never done before. "That's how my fall began," he told me. In
order, he got busted, went to prison, lost his job and his wife. By the
came out of prison he was HIV positive. Nonetheless, Michael carries
well, rarely swears, likes to play chess, and has made a systematic
homeless life and characters. I've learned more about the system from
from almost anyone else I've met.
As a result, I know exactly what I'm going to
do with my evening and possibly
Now I see her coming. "Would you share a
cigarette, brother?" she asks.
I stop, pull out a pack from my pocket, and offer it to her. When I
try to walk away, she asks, "Any light?"
While I'm lighting her cigarette, she whispers,
"Any-thing I can do for your
"Yes," I say. "I know a quiet place."
Michael has coached me well. "Stay in your
turf," he has advised me, "so
that you can control the course of events."
I head for a cheap hotel a few blocks from
Sumner House where the room rate
is $25 for three hours. Each payday, this hotel becomes a market place;
homeless and street people come here to spend their welfare and Social
checks. They score some crack, pick up a skeezer, smoke their brains
have sex. You could say both sexes get their rocks off, although in
The room is squalid. The only thing that looks
clean is the bed linen, so I
sit on the bed, fully clothed. The girl starts undressing herself. She
skinny but not unattractive. In her eyes is a nameless melancholy,
sometimes associate this with the homeless who have children but no
where they are. I'm extremely uncomfortable with this scene, but I have
relaxed, as though I have been doing it all my life.
"This is a power game," Michael has told me. "A
predatory game. If
she figures you're not from the street, she'll definitely take
advantage of you. In this game, one always takes advantage of the
other. Make sure it's not you."
Yet I discover that it's not so easy to look
like someone who doesn't care,
who just wants to party, when the entire scene, including this sad,
across the room from me, fills me with dread and even disgust. Michael
to introduce me to a "nice" skeezer --"considering that a skeezer can
he added. But I thought that would change the rules of the game. If I
want to talk to a skeezer, to know her and appreciate the whole
better--because I have an idea of the women the homeless men get their
gratification from--I've got to pick her up myself, so that I can
rawness as much as possible.
I pull two vials from my pocket and give them
to her. A demo has
materialized in her hand and she deftly slips in a rock. Cocaine rocks
smoked in a glass tube called a demo or stem. This time she doesn't ask
me for a
light. Taking a butane lighter from her pocket, she lights the thing
takes two deep hits, and passes the demo to me.
"Do I have to ask you to go ahead?" she says,
indicating the pipe,
which I am holding but not using.
The idea, Michael has told me, is to wear me
down. "The more you
smoke, the less you'll be able to perform," he said, "which will make
I don't do crack and I don't want to perform,
so what's the problem? The
problem is how to tell her, without blowing my cover, that I just want
to ask her a few questions, to know her views of the world. And what if
doesn't want to talk?
"What do we do now?" she inquires.
"Why don't you have a seat?" I suggest, looking
directly into her
"What do you want?"
"What do you want me to do to you?"
"Just have a seat. We have nothing but time.
Let's get to know each
"You come here to fuck or to talk?"
Instead of answering, I display all the vials I
have with me. I am in the
middle of what one fellow client calls the "street-shrewd strategizing
intrigue." The girl almost chokes at the sight and sits down.
I hold her hand. "Are you okay?"
"Are you a cop or something?"
"Why do you say that?"
"You're a weirdo, y'know?"
"Because I suggest that we get to know each
"That's not what usually brings people here."
"I know, but you're special. You don't have
anything to fear from me." Her eyes soften. "What's your name?"
"Wanexa, with an `x.' You say `Wanesha,' as in
"It's a beautiful name."
"Oh yes," she says proudly. "My father gave it
"Where do you live?" I ask gently.
"It's none of your business."
"I live in a shelter," I tell her. "You know
the armory around the
"Yes. That's where I live."
"I live in a shelter too," she says at last.
"Lexington Avenue Women's
shelter. They transformed a day-care center into a homeless shelter."
"Isn't this odd? We both live in homeless
shelters. That's one thing
we have in common."
"I have that in common with 100,000 people in
New York City. Big
I give her back the stem and she accepts it
happily. "Tell me about your
parents," I say.
"What about them?" she asks while putting her
clothes back on. "What
do you want to know about my parents?"
"Where did they come from? How did they make a
living? What are they
"They both came from the South--South Carolina
and Georgia. Dad worked
for the Transit Authority and Mom was a postal worker."
"How many kids?"
"Six," she says between hits. "I was the
"What happened between then and now?"
"Y'know," she says, tickled, "you sound like a
"You know I'm not. You and I are in the same
boat. Tell me about your
first hit," I say, nodding at the stem.
"My husband, although he was my boyfriend then.
It started like a
game, but before I knew it, I was hooked. When I look back, I know that
beginning of my downfall. I've got three kids. They were all taken away
and now they're in foster care."
"Where's your husband?"
"Surely in jail or in some shelter. I lost
track of him long ago."
"Tell me something. If someone were to ask you
how he could help you,
what would you say?"
"My children," she answers at once. "I want
them back. I miss them so
"Would you stop smoking crack if that's the
price to pay?"
"In a minute."
"May I ask you another question?"
"Don't you think that what you do keeps us
down, all of us human
beings, and puts women back a hundred years?"
She remains silent for a few minutes, weighing
naïveté of my question, then sighs. "The only mistake
is to think that I'm still a human being. I've lost all sense of
purpose. That's why I live like this. That's why I gave my children up."
A few minutes later, I leave.
There must be a woman for every man, and a man
for every woman. Nature
planned it that way. Skeezers take care of homeless men's sexual needs.
this an accurate statement to make?" I ask Michael Bell when I see him
"In a way," he answers. "But remember, it's not
a general rule. There
are sissies too. For five dollars they'll suck your dick. For ten you
According to Neil, another resident here at
Sumner House, the price of sex
on the streets has dropped considerably because of them both. Why pay
$20-hooker when you can get it for less at home?
Along with those legitimately down and out, the
shelters attract a wide range
of social outcasts, undesirables, and just plain hustlers. Ed is a
appliance repairman whose house is in the neighborhood of Sumner House,
prefers living in the shelter to living at home with his wife and two
children. Sounds crazy? When he gets dressed up in the street, he looks
like an executive,
but he has a terrible weakness for crack, which he chooses to indulge
a shelter he can smoke all the crack he wants; when he's tired of
when he wants sex, he goes home. He's been married to his wife for 28
loves her, and raves to us about how well she treats him when he goes
makes good money at his job and gives his paycheck to his wife; she
his weakness for crack and gives him enough money to indulge his habit
wants to. Somehow, it works for them.
Of course, there isn't supposed to be any drug
use in the shelter, but the
answer to that one is simple. The shelter staff are among the biggest
abusers I've ever met, dealing crack and ganja freely because they
don't have to
worry about the police. For the same reason, the shelters are gathering
for homosexuals and transvestites of all races, because the shelter is
place to see and be seen, to display your wares in a relatively safe
At 10:30 p.m., I stop at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
just opposite the United
Nations headquarters, where, although it's mid-spring, the temperature
is in the
teens. Twelve homeless men and women live there, some sleeping inside
boxes, some inside makeshift houses--and when I say "houses," you know
euphemism. They can survive the cold only because there's a fire
burning in an
iron can nearby. I had noticed this shantytown a few weeks back when I
visit a friend of mine at the U.N. I could not believe that there was a
shantytown just across the street from the office of the Secretary
General of the
world body, one of the most powerful people in the world, if only
because he is
just a phone call away from all the world leaders. This man wants to
world's problems, yet he is incapable of solving the simple one right
street from his office.
I sit down by the fire, ready to spend the
night here. It's warm and sweet
and I try to make myself comfortable. Human societies look for water
establishing a settlement in the wild; the city's homeless people first
a warm spot, especially during cold weather. Most of my neighbors are
asleep, but three are chatting while drinking beer. They watch me as I
find a good spot by the fire. "I'm looking for a place," I explain.
I assume they will ignore me, but one of them
beckons me over with a big hand
gesture. "Come on up," he shouts. "Come closer."
I walk up to the trio. The one who called me
pulls a can of beer from his
pocket and hands it over. "It's not opened," he warns.
"Thank you," I say and sit down next to them.
"Roy," he introduces himself.
"Nouk! Nice meeting you."
I look at the others and shake their hands as
they pull them out of their
I have on my thick Siberian coat, of course,
but Bobby goes to his own
shanty, pulls out a blanket, and places it around my shoulders. "Y'a
prepared for the night," he says and sits down.
I'm warmed by his generosity and gratefully sip
my beer. From time to time,
a rodent appears, wanders about for a bit, and disappears. I think
animal is looking for heat until Bob says, "These rats are so greedy."
"Give them some bread," Johnny suggests.
"There's no more bread," Bob answers.
"These creatures won't leave us alone then,"
Roy says. "What time is
"Between ten thirty and eleven," I say. "Tell
me, what's the link
between rats, bread, and us here?"
"Hey man," Roy answers. "If you need to spend a
quiet night here, feed
the rats first."
"It's not only here," Johnny adds with a laugh.
"It's everywhere on
There are several delis in the area. I go to
look for one that is still
open, buy bread and a six-pack of beer. They cheer when I bring the
back. Each one takes a beer and places it by his side. Bob stands up,
bread, and places it around us strategically so that we won't see the
they come for a meal. "Now they'll leave us alone," he says.
They keep talking, telling jokes about what
happened during the day. At
about two o'clock, Johnny says, "It's time to go to the supermarket."
He stands up, followed by Bob and Roy. "Can I
come?" I ask, looking at Roy.
"Be my guest."
Johnny goes north, Bob south, Roy west. I stay
with Roy, who is older and
seems more talkative than the other two. The supermarket, I quickly
the neighborhood garbage can. "It's our turn," Roy explains. "Each
of us look for food, aluminum cans and paper to recycle, cardboard for
clothes for all the residents of the colony."
He laughs. "You can't believe what the guys who
live in these apartments
throw away every day. While we're starving to death at their doorsteps,
guys throw out tons of food daily. When the sun goes down, we come out.
The way he says this makes me crack up because
the analogy is dead on. Homeless people compete for the contents of
garbage cans with no one but the
rodents. "Maybe that's why they provide your `supermarket,'" I say.
"I guess so." Roy's innocence is disarming.
"People are cool around
here. It's the police that give us a hard time."
"How many times have they sacked your shanties?"
"I can't count no more. They come anytime and
sack, but we come right
back the same night."
"Why don't you go to the shelter?"
"Oh, no! We enjoy our freedom here. In a
shelter, we can't come and
go as we please. We got nothing against the municipals, but the reason
avoid the armories is basically the freedom problem. If you want to
one tomorrow, we won't stop you. Don't get me wrong now, you're also
stay here as long as you want."
He claps me on the back. "And if you buy me
beer and smokes, I'll go to the
supermarket for you. That's the only thing we don't find in garbage
that sense, rats have it better than us."
We're silent for a few minutes. "Tell me about
yourself, Roy," I say
"I'm an electrical engineer. I worked
twenty-five years for the
Transit Authority. Three years ago, I had an accident. I spent eight
the hospital and when I came out, no one was waiting for me."
"Are you married? Do you have kids?"
"Oh, yes! A beautiful wife I married out of
love and two beautiful
Roy is eager to talk about his life. He gives
me the impression that he
doesn't often get such an opportunity. He explains how his wife "stuck
couple of months, then gave up" on him. She moved to Connecticut to be
mother and to save on rent, and she took the kids with her. But up
met someone else and forgot all about Roy "the Marvelous."
"That's how she used to call me each time I
brought a paycheck home,"
he says. "It's amazing how who we are and what we do has a lot to do
we're involved with. It's true, nothing I was or did were for me but
family. The day I discovered that my wife had left, my drive
"Tell me something, Roy. Who do you blame?
Who's responsible for your
"Me, me, and me. I will not blame my wife, or
say that I loved her too
much and thought she loved me too. I will not blame the color of my
smell of my breath, or any misfortune--why should I? I'm a white boy
Hampshire. My father still lives there in a big house. If I thought he
kind of guy who believes that having a son who doesn't want to pay his
okay, I'd go back tomorrow. But I prefer to be here anyway, living the
live, and learning the true meaning of life."
"May I ask you what you learn?"
"I'm learning to be free of worry. Is my wife
going to dump me if I
don't bring a paycheck home? I'm learning to be free. Free."
When our bags are full and heavy to carry, Roy
suggests that we go back. Johnny and Bob are already there, along with
five other men. They look as though
they are just waking up. Roy introduces me and adds, indicating the
boy has a sharp eye. He got all this by himself."
"That's only half true," I argue with a smile.
They cheer again. People start coming out of
their shanties as if they know
it's time to eat. Two women are squatting and a man is standing, all
urinating in one corner of the same area. They relieve themselves
shamelessly, and no one pays attention to them because they're too busy
food. Johnny seems to be a tough guy, but his female companion is busy
aside food for later. She takes all of it back to her `house' and does
After we eat, most of the guys go back to the
shanties, but Roy doesn't
disappear until he makes sure I'm okay. It's already almost 5:00 am and
asleep quickly right there on the sidewalk. When I wake up, it's eleven
o'clock. Nobody else is awake, so I stand up, stretch, and slip away,
heading back to the
I met Ralph again yesterday evening and
discovered another side of his
personality and another aspect of his activities. With me on his tail,
his domain the way he did the other night, but this time I learned much
about the underground finances of the homeless. Many of them are on
some bringing in as much as $520 from Social Security and $111 worth of
stamps. Those who are HIV positive or have full-blown AIDS sometimes
get $292 as
a rent stipend from the Division of AIDS & Services. What they do
money is their business. They are not supposed to use food stamps for
except food, but that's like expecting cabbies and waiters to declare
tips. When they need immediate cash, they just trade $111 worth of food
for $70, $80, or $90, depending on where they go and who they deal
with. I know
several department store owners who offer these desperate guys as
little as $50
for $111 worth of food stamps. That's where Ralph comes into the
gives them $100 for the same stamps, as I witnessed yesterday. Needless
in this area they all come to Ralph.
"There's a lot of cash to be made here," I told
him, "considering that
in this area, there are somewhere around 20,000 people, homeless or
perpetually in need of immediate cash and trading their food stamps for
"I agree," he said.
I was a little surprised that he did not
dispute the moral implications of
what he was doing.
"First of all," he said, "most of these guys
don't want to go to the
store, so I go for them. Second, I offer them a better deal. Third,
to give their money to me, rather than someone else. Fourth, I take
"I don't understand that part."
"Stay in touch," he said. "You'll soon find out
that we hold a
treasury here, in case someone needs help, immediate medical or legal
attention. I'm the one they come to first because they know I care.
Currently three of our
friends are dying of AIDS. We're there for them."
Yesterday, I finally came to the realization
that I am at home among the
homeless. This hasn't been a simple or easy transition, and the
been an extraordinary character named James Terrell. Terrell is a poet,
playwright, artist, singer, musician, chess player --he does everything
I like to
do. What's more, he cares only about making art. Sitting down to play
with him one afternoon and then looking over his poetry--abundant and
spelling errors about which he couldn't care less--I connected with him
human level. At that moment, I was able to let down my anthropological
only because I am an artist and I like being around artists. Stop your
Nouk, I said to myself, and don't make the mistake the Europeans make
come to Africa.
I am the fourth child in my family; James
Terrell, born in 1948, is
the first of eight children and is the same age as my eldest brother,
a Catholic priest. Terrell is a big, handsome guy with dreadlocks and,
few missing teeth, an air of self-assurance that is absent from most of
homeless. He was so successful dealing drugs with his brother that he
drive around with plastic bags filled with money in the trunk of his
he didn't know where else to keep it. After he got busted and did time,
never get back into the rat race, so he checked into a shelter instead.
lives in the shelter system and makes art all day long, cutting
pictures out of
magazines he finds on the street and creating elaborate collages.
Terrell isn't the only unlikely character I've
met in the shelter system. I've encountered a general from Brazil, and
a college professor from Nigeria who
had fled the military regime there. Occasionally I come across someone
good background whose apartment has burned down or who's been overcome
series of catastrophes--losing job, spouse, and home all in a short
time. But these people don't stay long before they realize they don't
here--and the other clients let them know they don't belong.
May 1, 2 p.m.
Wanexa's semi-private room at Harlem Hospital
is dreary but clean. I can see
by the blank look on her face when I enter the room that she assumes
to visit the woman she shares the room with. I stop by her bedside,
hand, and whisper, "Do you remember me?"
"Yeah," she says, smiling. "You're the weirdo."
"You checked into the hospital without letting
me know?" I joke. "With
whom will I chat again?"
She laughs. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to visit you."
"How did you know I was here?"
"We went to Lexington Women's shelter to
present one of my friend
Terrell's plays. I asked for you and one of the women told me you were
told you you're special, remember?"
"If you'd asked me by phone or something, I
wouldn'ta wanted you to
come. I don't want nobody to see me like this."
She has difficulty speaking because she has
deteriorated so much since the
evening I spoke with her. "That's exactly why I didn't call," I say.
I give her the roses I have brought her. She
smells them and smiles. "I
don't know what to do with you," she says.
A tear rolls down her cheek. Because she is too
weak, I take back the roses,
cut their stems, and put them in a vase with fresh water. Then I sit
down in the
chair by her bedside.
"Now what can you tell me about you? What
"I wanted my kids back, so the caseworker
insisted that I get
rehabilitated," she says, rallying a bit as she relates her story. "I
Phoenix House and they accepted me in their Adult Residential Treatment
program. But then the first exam I took, they discovered that I had
cirrhosis of the
liver. They checked me in here, and I've been in this bed ever since."
"I didn't know you drank too."
"I did everything possible to get high and
forget my misery."
Wanexa is clearly in bad shape. I remember her
ravaged body when she started
to undress in our sleazy hotel room, but I wish someone had prepared me
I'm seeing now. She looks more wasted away and her skin is pale
"What are you looking at?" she asks.
"I didn't know that human skin could turn this
color," I say
"Yeah, I know. It's difficult to look at me
without staring. It's the
end, isn't it?"
"What can I do for you?" I ask almost
automatically because there's
nothing else to say, and even though it seems plain that there is
can do for this poor woman.
"Could you really do something for me?" she
asks quickly, surprising
"If I can, sister."
She looks me right in the eye. "Get me to see
my kids one more time. Even
from far away. From this window right here, you can see a playground.
I look through the window at a beat-up,
graffiti-painted playground filled
with children. "Where are they living?"
She gives me an address and a phone number that
I write down, along with
their names: Aisha, Malik, and Akeem. I realize that they live right in
neighborhood. "Difficult, not being a family member," I mutter, shaking
"but I'll see what I can do."
She smiles and squeezes my hand. "Give it your
I squeeze back. A few minutes later, Wanexa is
dozing off. When she
inhales, I can hear a small moan, and when she exhales, a longer moan.
this same noise twenty-six years ago, when my older brother was dying
at the age of sixteen, and I've never forgotten it. On my way out, I
"How bad is she?" I inquire.
"Are you a family member?"
liver has turned into a piece of leather. It doesn't function any
more. So the kidneys have shut down, causing cardiac exhaustion and
peritonitis. The collapse is systemic. Fluids are building up-- that's
why her stomach is swollen."
"Can I ask a difficult question?"
"How long before the end?"
"Do you mean how much time does she have to
"Will you keep it to yourself?"
At one o'clock in the afternoon, I show up at
the address where Wanexa's
children live. It's a Sunday and I figure the family should be home
from church. The foster parents, a man called Musa and his wife, Alema,
listen to me
"She just wants you, or me, if you trust me
enough," I say, "to bring
the kids to the playground behind the hospital so that she can see them
her bedroom window for the last time."
Musa clears his voice. "We'll do better than
that," he says. He calls,
"Aisha! Aisha!" An eight-year-old girl appears. "Get your brothers
dressed. We're going to the mosque!"
"But I thought," the girl argues, "that it
wasn't till the evening."
"We will stop at the hospital to visit a
friend, sweetheart," Musa
explains. Pushing Aisha toward me, he adds, "Say hello to the brother."
"As-Salaam aleikum," she says shyly.
"Aleikum Salaam," I reply.
"Let me bring you tea," Alema says and stands
"I have to tell you, my brother," I say, "that
she doesn't want anyone
to see her dying, especially not the kids."
"Death is part of life, my brother. And this is
an act of love and
affection. The kids will learn from it."
I'm moved by his quiet statement and know he is
right. Whether it comes from
his religion or his own experience doesn't seem to matter. Still, we
I will go ahead of them to prepare the way. I sip my tea quickly and
When I get to the hospital room, Wanexa looks
different--better. She has
just come from her bath, helped by a young friend from the shelter who
fixing her hair. "You look beautiful today," I say. "Are you going out?"
Wanexa barely smiles at my joke. I have to talk
more than usual and try to
tell jokes--something I'm no good at--to keep her light-spirited.
three o'clock, Musa and Alema burst in with Wanexa's three kids and two
own. This explosion of youthful chatter and laughter injects some
life into the room. Wanexa looks stunned, but happily so. She looks at
I am already on my way out the door. It's perhaps the best moment I've
had in my
brief relationship with her, and her life is almost over.
My sojourn at Sumner House has come to an end
with a tragi-comic bang. The
court has ordered a down-sizing of the shelter and the first target is
who has been serving as editor-in-chief of the Sumner Gazette,
publication that has taken upon itself to "kill the imperfections of
community that's Sumner House and the shelter system at large."
been very supportive, but today they keep a low profile. Sumner House
its undesirables and no one wants to share the fate of the Sumner
Gazette's editorial staff.
"I've been transferred to Harlem I," says
Terrell, storming into the
Life Management Center, a security guard on his tail. Cynthia, the
director, is speechless. "These guys have been in the Gazette's
and have smashed all my work down," he continues. "My art is destroyed."
Having just come from there, I've already seen
the damage. On July 4th,
1976, when thirteen Cameroon-ian police with assault weapons stormed
into my room
and sacked the premises before arresting me, it looked quite similar.
something against you," stammers Cynthia. "It's intolerable."
She stands up and walks out with Terrell as the
guard dutifully follows, but
I have seen this coming. A week before, a guard told me, "You guys are
bigger every day. What will happen to my job if there's no more
homelessness?" I even predicted that the Administration here would use
this downsizing as a
pretext to konk Terrell and his friends on the head. Did Sophocles tell
everything when he wrote "Truth is the best argument"? He should have
of its danger. Ten minutes later, Terrell is gone.
In the course of the next three days, all of
Terrell's friends are made to
leave, including me. I don't regret this. On the contrary, I am still
the seven months I've spent here. But why stop at throwing us out of
House? We should have been thrown out of the international system. Out
planet. Homeless people are the American nightmare. They represent the
core of what America does not want to see. And now I'm beginning to be
that hard core, even though I still have a home that I can return to if
I choose. I have begun to feel the weight of contempt that is projected
by the staff in
these shelters toward the homeless. This is complicated by my knowledge
staff workers don't have anywhere near my level of education, my level
potential, or my understanding of the world, yet they are treating me
shit--and I have to take it! Moreover, I know that if I were to tell
Nigerians on staff "Hey, brother, I'm from Cameroon" (although I have
it's usually taken for Haitian), or if I were to say a few words in
Pidgin, the way they relate to me would change completely. Yet I have
true to my goal of discovering the secret of the shelter system, and so
level I remain an observer, as infuriating as that role can be at times.
May 9 - September 29, 1993
When I walk into the Franklin Shelter Care
Center for Men in the Bronx
(Franklin SCCM), it is 1:30 in the afternoon.
"Hey, we don't accept walk-ins," a worker
sitting behind a desk shouts,
trying to stop me. These guys make me tired sometimes. I look at him
to let him know that he is tiring me.
"How do you know I'm a walk-in? Just by looking
at me?" I ask,
speaking very slowly. He doesn't have the reply to that. I walk up and
"Coming from Sumner?" he inquires.
I nod, showing the sheet of paper. "Obviously."
"Go up to Social Services, second floor."
The woman on duty doesn't cause me any trouble.
She has a beautiful face but
her lower body is extraordinarily large. She gives me a meal ticket,
a bed. "Mr. Lassiter is your caseworker," she says. "He'll be here
Monday. You can see him then."
I head for the recreation room, but as I walk
in the recreation director
stops me. "You can't come in unless you want to attend the Interfaith
"Of course," I reply. I don't know what the
hell Interfaith is or what
their meetings are all about, but I need to sit down and cool off a
because I'm feeling pissed at being made to jump through yet another
I walk in, a dozen people are already inside and the meeting has just
started. Three white nuns in civilian clothes look very much in charge.
As soon as I sit
down, someone hands me a Bible, which strikes me as odd right off. I
this is an Interfaith meeting, why assume that I'm Christian? Because
of the way
I dress, I'm often mistaken for a Muslim, so if anything, I ought to be
the Quran. But I could just as well be a Buddhist or a Vedantin. For
the participants talk about God, the Gospel, and their personal
with God. I've heard all this a million times, so I barely listen until
Teresa, who is presiding over this gathering, asks me to talk. Now I'm
happy to get a few things off my chest.
"The problem I have with the Interfaith
movement," I say calmly, "is
that the only holy book made available in your meetings is the Bible.
another Christian scheme, talking about Interfaith but really fostering
Catholicism? Don't you see that in doing so you insult people's
and that each time you insult people's intelligence you really insult
your own? What do you wish to accomplish with this kind of scheming?"
I'm on a tear and Sister Teresa has to stop me.
"Listen, my friend," she
says, cutting in, "no one keeps you from bringing whatever book you
wish to these
services. We'll discuss any passage you choose."
"It's not for me to bring the book I wish to
discuss," I reply with an
edge of annoyance. "You should bring it, just as you brought the Bible.
time you organize an Interfaith meeting, you should make all the holy
available and discuss all of them at each gathering. Then you'll truly
Sister Teresa, a good moderator, decides to
stop the discussion. "In a way,"
she says, "you're right. Next time, we will make sure that the Quran is
"Bring the Dhammapada also," I say, not wanting
to let her off the
"What's the Dhammapada?" asks a man sitting
next to me.
"The sayings of the Buddha," I reply.
After the meeting, someone brings out cakes,
tea, and coffee and we all
socialize like old co-religionists. If the group is shocked or offended
remarks, they don't show it. Food conquers all.
Dinner at Franklin is from 6 to 7, but I eat
very little because of all that
cake. Instead, I sit in the dining room observing the residents, an
raw crew, even more so than at Sumner House. In fact, they remind me of
Shelter clients: the same rush to get the food, the same yelling,
trading food. Most wear torn clothes and some stink strongly.
After dinner, I go back to the sleeping area to
find the bed assigned to me,
A37. Franklin SCCM is nothing but another ugly armory-turned-shelter,
sleeping area is on the drill floor, with 600 beds in it. Another day,
bellyship. Two residents named Harry and Malik come over to me and
announce that they were at the meeting and liked what I said. Harry
holds the Bible in a way
that identifies him as a Christian ready to quote chapter and verse.
is very dark-skinned, wears the white skullcap or kufi of the devout
Muslim. They are good friends and yet they always seem to be arguing,
like two guys on a
radio talk show. All they agree on is what they have in common--the
they are African Americans. The discussion lasts an hour and then Malik
himself and Harry proposes to show me the joint.
I follow him upstairs to see the other sleeping
areas, starting with the
Veterans' dorm on the second floor. The third floor can sleep a hundred
the fourth, twice that number. On our way down, I inquire about
lockers. "Just pick one that's empty," Harry says. "Put your stuff
inside, a lock
outside, and it's yours."
"Generally lockers go with beds," I observe.
"Locker 34 on the drill
floor should belong to the one sleeping in bed 34."
"That's how it's supposed to be," he says. "But
you know, in the
system it don't work that way. The system does not work at all, I might
It's 10 o'clock by now so I put my stuff in a
locker, get linen, and make my
bed. Then I lie down and crash almost immediately, exhausted, as often
just from the effort of finding a place to sleep. An hour later, I am
by a naked Puerto Rican who is walking around and calling his
countrymen to arms.
"Secession! Secession! Los
Despite my weariness, this scene brings a smile
to my face for the first time
that day. But since I can't go back to sleep, I use the bathroom, then
and lie down on my bed. If the drill floors in these armories are
bellyships, I wonder, where are the shackles? After a few minutes of
I discern them in the bed roster all the residents are required to sign
night between 9 and 10. This is how the master--here the system--knows
"Fuck this shit!" I say to myself and I leap
from my bed and start
packing. I'm ready to quit the system for good. The lights went out at
even so it's still bright enough to see clearly. As I sit on the edge
of my bunk
planning my next move, three clients converge on a vacant bed next to
have on dark catsuits that make them look like ninjas--very hip-hop.
One of them
seems familiar but I can't place him. Oblivious to me, they sit down
to talk, not loudly, but not whispering either.
"Keep it cool, man," says the first one. "No
fanfare. No flowers. No
nothing. A casket. That's it."
"Come on, man," argues the second. "When Billy
Martin died, people
clapped. That's hip."
"Billy Martin was a baseball legend. You ain't.
The nigger was known
all over the world. Who knows you?"
In this milieu, I realize, the word "nigger"
means something different. With
some dismay, I also realize that they are planning their own funerals,
they can't be more than twenty-five years old. I quietly lie back down,
left arm over my eyes, and feign sleep, wanting to hear the rest of
"I want my friends to remember me as bad,"
insists the second
one. "Bad! I don't want my sister to cry. When women cry, you don't
you were really bad. If women cry, I want them removed!"
"Flowers," says the third one. "Lots of
flowers. Like a don. A capo. That's me!"
I'm thinking this kind of dialogue belongs in a
screenplay. As I work to fix
it all in my memory, the guy who spoke first segues out of the funeral
"Are y'all ready for the mission tonight?" His
tone is more serious
than before. Involuntarily, I hold my breath.
"Yeah," says the second one. "Always ready for
The third is already on his feet. "The bitch
gonna suck tonight," he says
with an air of bravado.
I start breathing fast.
"It's gonna be hour `H.' Let's go!" the first
one orders. Without
thinking, I sit up abruptly.
"Can I come?" I ask. They spin around as a
group, noticing me for the
first time. "Come on, boys," I argue. "I can't sleep in this fucking
tonight. Need some action too."
"We won't be bothered by you," says the first
guy, who is already
walking toward the exit.
"Listen, man," pleads the second one, "he might
be some help."
This one, who I feel I've seen before, seems to
be the leader. He tells me
that they planned on recruiting two other guys in this shelter, but the
had in mind are missing. If clients use the shelters for sex and drugs,
outsiders use the shelters for other reasons. When the cops need to
fill out a
police line-up, they come to the shelter and offer residents $20 apiece
in--and the clients come running because they know it's easy money.
local drug lords want to teach someone a lesson, they come to the
hire a few of the tougher guys to do their dirty work dirt cheap. The
are human warehouses stocked with cheap labor desperate for money.
guys have come here looking for some backup.
"So why not him?" the second guy is asking his
friends. "He's smart."
"Don't give a fuck whether he's smart or not,"
interjects the third. "Is he cool? That's what I want to know."
"Yeah, the man's cool," says my sponsor. "I
know him from Sumner." Looking at me, he asks, "You wrote in the Gazette,
I nod, and that seems to be enough for the
others. A few minutes later, as
we're driving, they introduce themselves. Jamal, the one who knows me
Sumner, and Akeem are both tall and strong, but Kadeem is shorter and
a bull. He drives and they insist that I sit next to him.
"I'm Nouk," I say. "N-o-u-k. Not N-double-O-K.
"All right, Nouk," says Akeem.
"The brothers raised hell at Sumner with their
paper," Jamal says with
an appreciative laugh. "They had to kick their butts out." He is
speaking more to his companions than to me, but I smile too. "We spoke
truth," I say.
"According to the Scriptures," says Akeem, "he
who speaks the truth
"That's how he knows that he's speaking the
truth," says Kadeem.
"Where are we going?" I ask after a while.
"We're on a mission, my brother," Akeem
answers. "We'll let you know
when the moment comes."
"Tell him," Jamal says.
"You tell him," Kadeem says.
"We're with an organization called the
Brotherhood of Reconciliation,"
Jamal says. "We work for peace and understanding among the people, all
people, especially the American people--"
He looks at me. "I'm listening," I say.
"Tell him about the mission," Akeem says.
"We've got to teach a lesson to some girl," he
"Not at all," he says with a laugh.
"Seriously. You know we're not into dirt."
A hint of firmness in his voice makes me
believe him. We drive for about
twenty minutes. At one point I notice that we are entering Westchester
County. Five minutes later, we stop, cut all the lights, and wait. I
questions but think it best to keep my cool, wait, and see. A few
Kadeem looks at his watch. "It's about time," he says.
places his right hand on his heart and his friends follow suit. They
recite something that sounds like a cross between a prayer and an oath
of allegiance, then they all don gloves and dark glasses and resume
posture. Five minutes later, a car stops across the street. I watch as
a white girl gets out on the driver's side and walks toward an
apartment building. In a flash, my three companions bolt the car and
accost her, Akeem wrapping his hand across her mouth to prevent her
from crying out. She struggles briefly but is no match for their size
and strength. The next thing I know, she's pinned between Jamal and
Akeem in the back seat and Kadeem is driving like a madman to get away
from the area. The whole thing has not taken more than a minute, but
that istime enough for me to understand that "teaching a lesson to some
girl" has turned into a kidnapping. I am part of a kidnapping, which,
as far as I know, is a federal offense and a capital crime. What could
I have been thinking?
Kadeem drives to a neighborhood I don't know. I
turn to see what's happening
behind me. Jamal's hand is now over the girl's mouth. Her eyes are wide
and for a brief second we make eye-contact. I'm sure she can read in my
that I too am wondering what's going on and what's wrong with these
it or not, we're in this together.
Ten minutes later, we pull into the driveway of
a suburban house and continue
into the attached garage. It's a well-to-do white neighborhood where we
stand out if we were spotted, but we go right from the car through a
into the basement, which is filled with furniture in storage and a
large bed. Jamal pushes the woman onto the bed, and she sits there
looking terrified. I sit
down and pull my note-book from my pocket, which nobody seems to mind.
woman, as I soon find out, is an executive of another "reconciliation"
her organization specializes in worldwide reconciliation whereas the
insists that reconciliation start at home. That seems to be the crux of
problem. The kidnapping is part of some larger political turf war,
have no clear idea of the size and extent of the opposing groups.
I look at the woman--let's call her Josephine.
She can't be more than
thirty. "How did you get to know her?" I ask Jamal.
"She advocates reconciliation at all times," he
says, not answering my
question. "What's scandalous is that the girl wants to demilitarize
Bosnia, but not the streets of America. She couldn't care less about
"She wants to feed the hungry of the world,"
says Kadeem, approaching
the bed threateningly. "Clothe the needy of the universe, but not the
needy of America. This will stop!"
He is seething. Of the three of them, I fear
Kadeem the most; he is the
calmest on the surface, but I've noticed that the calm ones are often
unpredictable. When they explode, they may go too far. "Unbelievable!"
in my notebook. "Kidnapped in order to be taught that reconciliation
I wake up at around 1 p.m. Kadeem is the only
one up, since he has been on
guard duty for the last three hours. Josephine, worn with fatigue, has
"Is there a bathroom in this house?" I ask
He points a finger upstairs. I thought at first
that the building was
abandoned, but as I walk into the bathroom, I am surprised to discover
every bit a middle-class house, with an impeccable and well-appointed
bathroom. When I go into the kitchen later to make some coffee, I find
everything I need,
including some high-priced beans and an electric grinder. I make a full
pour out two cups, and bring one down to Kadeem.
"I don't drink coffee," he says. "Tea only."
Sitting down, I realize that there's no
daylight in the basement. "It's a
beautiful day," I whisper to Kadeem. "You can see it from upstairs.
unfortunate that we can't see the sunlight from here."
"Why don't you go outside then?"
"I prefer to stay here."
"You want to keep an eye on the girl, right?
You afraid she might be
That has crossed my mind. "Are you capable of
raping a woman, Kadeem?"
"Only as a punitive action," he replies. "To
teach her something."
Isn't that usually what's implied by rape?
Akeem comes downstairs with a
steaming cup of coffee in his hand, complimenting its maker. "That's
style, man," I say, trying to lighten the mood. "Italians know how to
Jamal comes down an hour later and asks Kadeem
to fix us something to eat.
"Why do you stay down here when the whole house is empty?" I ask Jamal.
"Where should we be?"
"The living-room is spacious and we could be
enjoying the daylight,
He smiles, shakes his head. "Five people in the
house would attract the
attention of the neighbors. Usually only one person lives here."
For a revolutionary, he makes good sense.
Roused by our voices, Josephine
opens her eyes. I can see the fear return to her a little at a time.
her situation thinks at first that she is just waking up to a new day,
it gradually dawns on her that she doesn't recognize the walls, the
smell of the place. For a split second, she thinks that she is still
and having a horrible nightmare. Slowly, she comes back to reality and
herself that it's not a nightmare--but then comes the realization that
too real. What she needs at that moment is a word of encouragement.
"Good afternoon," I say brightly. She doesn't
reply. "There's a
She looks at Jamal. "Take her to the bathroom,"
he says to Akeem. Josephine
leaves the room, followed by Akeem.
"How is it going so far, bro?" Jamal asks me.
"It's for me to ask you that question," I say.
"You know very well
that I don't condone your methods. There are many different ways to get
"We've picked this one. You see, what I like
about you being here is
that you can witness something different. Action. Not writing. You can
see our reality from a different perspective."
"Our? Have you said `our'? Who are you talking
about when you say
`our'? Are you talking about homeless people? The disenfranchised?
Minorities? Black men? Who are you talking about?"
"All the above. There's something you haven't
America, and you won't get it unless someone or something puts you in a
to see it."
"You don't have any idea of who's really angry
in this country, and how
many they are. You'll be surprised, my brother. Our perspective is the
perspective of the angry. It's not a black or a white thing."
"What do you wish to accomplish?"
"Little changes. Here and there. One at a time."
Josephine returns in the middle of this
"You have a long way to go," I say to Jamal.
"Of course we have a very long way to
go--that's why we don't have time
or energy to waste. And we need all the help we can get."
"Now tell me how actions like this one help
"You see, my brother, there is weakness in
strength, but there is also
strength in weakness. We are weak, yet very strong because we turn our
"To me, you have the same agenda.
Reconcil-iation. Yet this young
lady here might hate you for the way you're treating her."
"How are we treating her?"
"What do you mean to accomplish by threatening
"We're doing her job, don't you see?"
"Offer her some coffee, man."
"She can go get some her damn self. Where does
she think she is, the
"Bring her some coffee, Pap," I insist.
Jamal goes out and brings back three cups of
coffee on a plate and Josephine
takes one. "That's Italian style," I repeat, "made especially for the
of your highnesses by your humble servant."
My humor is crude but sufficient to eke a smile
from Jamal, if not from
Josephine. At least he has indicated that she's free to move around the
house. Has she noticed it also? I think so, because when I make
eye-contact with her
she looks a little less fearful.
That evening, we have dinner with beer and go
to sleep without further
conversation or incident.
Jamal appears at around 11 this morning. The
ninjas still have their dark
glasses on for full effect, and I have to wonder how they can see at
all in the
lightless basement. Jamal has a cup of coffee in his hand and is
with a philosophical discourse on the need for reconciliation in
reminds me of a young Stokely Carmichael.
"Everything is dying a slow death," he says,
while I jot down notes in
my pad. "Who will give us another shot in the sun? New waves like rap
hop, ain't doin' shit. Look at who controls it. It's too depressing to
think about it. The only place I'd like to take the angry is the brain
place. I'd like to print signs everywhere with `Stop at the Brain
Store' on 'em. Sometimes fun-time can become a lifetime of misery. A
permanent short-circuit. `The world owes me. America owes me.' That's
all I hear around me all the time. I mean all the time! I say,
with that belief, you wait for everything to
be handed to you on a silver plate. It's a wrong idea, a very wrong
idea for us,
especially the younger generation, to keep thinking that America has
wrong and that she'd better apologize and pay reparations before we
do something for ourselves.
"I've been in the shelter system. As a matter
of fact, I'm still in
the shelter system. I have an H.H.R.A. number. Here's my meal ticket.
man, the shelter system thinks that to make me happy, all I need is
meals a day, eat catsup soup, stick cardboards in my shoes and wear a
woolen coat from the shelter's thrift shop. Punks deserve love, too.
with solutions is the hardest part. What are we going to do? Life gets
for the angry that are trying to fit into a world that moves too
While Jamal is rapping, I observe Josephine,
who seems moved by his words. As he rattles on, something changes in
her eyes. The fear gives way to
understanding, perhaps even compassion. "We all open our eyes every
morning in a
world that's cruel to us," she says suddenly. "But at least it's a
world. What we've got to do now is create a bond that makes people
something worthwhile, making it better for all."
I don't know whether she is speaking to Jamal,
to all of us, or just to
herself. She says these words with no anger in her voice, even seeming
espouse Jamal's view. I like what I'm seeing: American youth talking to
other about themselves, their place in American society, and especially
future they have to build together.
"--a world that seems to go fast, too fast," is
Jamal's main concern. "How to fit in it?"
"Create a bond that makes people strive for
something worthwhile. Make
it better for all," is Josephine's answer. Reconciliation at home for
reconciliation in the world for Josephine. Jamal does not feel safe in
streets of America. Josephine does not feel safe in the world. Where do
meet? Will they ever meet? Jamal doesn't care about world safety.
doesn't know the streets of America. All she cares about is the world's
because she likes to vacation in Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya. Should
Jamals of America make sure that all the Josephines of America know the
before going to make peace in the world. By any means necessary? Is
message here? Is this the only way to make the present, but also the
better for all?
Something has happened in the room and the
tension drops afterwards. Josephine has become one of the group. Jamal
realizes that she understands him
and she feels that he knows it. "I'd like more coffee," she says a few
"This time, you'll go get it your damn self,"
Jamal says. "Where do
you think you are--"
"A plantation?" Josephine says as she
disappears up the stairs.
I laugh. When she doesn't come back right away,
we go looking for her and
find her fixing lunch.
The ninjas have left. They just packed their
stuff, said "We're out of
here," and walked out the door. Josephine wasn't ready so I stay behind
she needs a hand. I wait while she goes to the bathroom-- and comes out
hours later, looking different, beautiful, with clothes she borrowed
from one of
the closets. From some leftovers in the refrigerator, she fixes two
bringing out a bottle of red wine I'd noticed before. "What do we do
"We have to get out of here, too," I say.
She stands there for a couple of minutes and
suddenly breaks down, sobbing
hysterically. After keeping herself under control for three days, she
down completely. I offer her my shoulder. "Where are we?" she asks
"To tell you the truth, I don't know," I say. I
feel compelled to ask
why she cried.
"Nothing like this ever happened in my life
before," she says.
"I thought it was because you're happy to be
"I thought they were going to kill me," she
I hold my breath. "When exactly did this idea
cross your mind?"
That's a surprise, since last night they had a
mini-party here. The ninjas
brought over three women they introduced as their girlfriends, and
with them from time to time, reappearing only to drink a beer or smoke
something. This lasted until four in the morning. I think Kadeem took
the girls home
later, but I'm not sure because I crashed. "When did this happen
exactly?" I ask
"I thought that they were going to stop me from
"They'd pay you to talk, believe me," I say
gently. "To tell you the
truth, I would love you to go to the police and report this kidnapping.
to be a key witness in this case. No one should resort to this method
to get a
point or a message across. It's violence. With the publicity, media
lot of people will identify with the case. Few people in America today
that they are not afraid to go home at night. The streets are a
zone-- kids killing kids, kids planning their own funerals because they
they don't have the time to live. What kind of society is this? Press
and make it public."
As we leave, Josephine is still thinking about
all this. I call a cab to
take her home and then I catch a bus to the shelter.
HARLEM I MEN'S SHELTER
September 29, 1993-February 28, 1995
September 29, 1993
As I walk into Harlem I Men's shelter, Terrell,
seated at his usual place in
the rec room just facing the entrance, raises his eyes. He stands up
over to me with a big smile. "It looks like you've been transferred
"I told you I wouldn't stay away from you for
long," I say.
We laugh. He has been making art, so we walk to
his table and he shows me
his latest pieces. It's around 11:30 and lunch time is approaching.
need a meal ticket to be able to eat here, I go to Social Services. The
caseworker who receives me is Mr. Albert Sarmah, a native of Liberia. I
what's become of the Nigerians.
"Nothing is supposed to happen here," he
begins. "You see it as you
come. Harlem I is different from any of the New York municipal
it's a school-turned-shelter, not an armory. Homeless Facilities
its showcase--if the Pope or the Queen of England stops in New York and
visit a homeless shelter, this is where they'll be brought. So you'll
transferred in a minute if you start trouble."
The man is right. Nothing happens in this
shelter-- literally. With a high
level of employability, Harlem I does not even look like a shelter.
There is a
vending machine visible from the entrance. Floors are mopped twice a
hundred fifty clients reside here at the moment, of which one hundred
currently employed or undergoing some kind of active training. They
look like homeless people. In one sense, I feel like I've moved up in
of the homeless. In another, my interest level has already begun to
decline. There will clearly be less idiosyncratic behavior here, so I
settle in for the
February 28, 1995, 10 a.m.
When I walk out of Harlem I Men's shelter
almost a year and a half after
moving in, I am through with New York municipal shelters. I am the
wonder how I was able to live so long in this shelter where nothing
but no matter, because now I'm ready to enter the next phase of my
homeless life. I have nothing more to learn from the shelter system, so
coming spring and summer I will live on the streets. All my belongings,
books, my music, my clothes, everything I brought from Paris, are still
storage in the sculptor's house in St. Albans.
Homeless people who live in shelters are not
truly homeless. Bad as the
shelters are, clients still have a roof over their heads, three square
day, a bed. Their linen is changed every week, they have running water,
heat. I've already been initiated into true street life and the world
Mole People by Ralph, but now I'm prepared to join them myself.
April 1, 1996
I've been living on the streets for nearly a
year, although on winter nights
I have been able to stay at the apartment of a friend and use a
computer there to
complete my journal, of which this excerpt is only a small fragment.
decided to leave the shelter system, it was because I felt that I'd
what I set out to learn. I had become the homeless woman I saw lying on
street corner two and a half years before. Back on that cold Election
1992, I thought of myself as a hotshot radical, someone trying to fight
governments while at the same time running around to political meetings
parties, hanging out with the rich and famous. Now I realize that
knowing it, that dying woman, whose fate I was never able to learn,
into the next part of my journey. What she said to me that night, in
that I wasn't applying the teachings of my Bassa elders. I'd been
living on the
surface and not diving into the depths of things. As a result, I'm a
person now than when I met her. I no longer want to own a house. I
want to go back to Queens to live in a friend's home.
I began my journey by asking myself why
somebody would prefer to freeze to
death on the streets when she could have gone to a shelter and been
and a warm bed to sleep in. I got the answer to that question by
the humiliations and frustrations of living in homeless shelters and
sleeping on the street myself. By living in the street, I have
own liberation from the obsessive needs of civilization. This is my
path for the
foreseeable future. I don't recommend it for everyone, any more than I
recommend a life devoted to asceticism in the caves of Nepal, or
lepers of Molokai. But it's the life I lead now.