Wednesday, June 30, 2010

there's gonna be a revolution

New York has become a much harder place of late.

More sad than scary really, but not easy to miss. The warmer air is sharp with stale sweat and the smell of the rank unwashed. Grocery carts laden with covered mounds and bubbled plastic bags are pushed up against buildings everywhere. Men, women and dogs stretch out over vents on every side street and thoroughfare, covered in cardboard.

Subway stations after 10pm have become convention centers for the ruined, hunched to sleep on benches, piles and carts beside them, swollen ankles, swollen feet bulging out of wasted shoes. There is no overlooking this underworld, no passing through from dance hall to overpriced apartment. It has become too pathetic, too prevalent, to ignore.

Even my neighborhood has its share, the sidewalk full of sad, sad drunks outside the OTB, shouting their pain from milk crate couches. And the lone man, long-haired and dignified, who washes his feet every morning with a bottle of Poland Spring. He has wild eyes and a gentle gait, and I would totally crouch beside his mailboxes for a sandwich and a story if it weren't for my paranoia of connecting to drifters who watch me come off the subway most nights at 2am and could very easily trail me home.

I work for a non-profit—run by middle-minded management jerks and wannabe bureaucrats—but the mission is a solid one. Rehabilitate the recovering homeless. Help them get and keep a job. Stay in touch as long as they do to negotiate lay-offs and relapses and, well, share the journey. Parts of my job inspire me daily, as dysfunctional and toxic an office environment as it has proven to be.

One of my superiors has been known to say that, particularly in this city, most of us are just a paycheck or two away. One ill-timed bender, one maladjustment made to the anti-depressants, one bad break too many, and how close do we come? I, for one, live paycheck to paycheck, and if it weren't for some solid support and a few lucky breaks, I'd be up a creek myself.

A lot of factors contribute to the cycle of homelessness: incarceration, lack of education or opportunity, mental illness, addiction . . . And watching this particular economic tailspin take its toll is getting harder and harder to watch.

That said, how easily and often do I hide in my book on the train as person after person sings, shouts, recites the standard N train speeches to fill their hat full of change. I avert my eyes because I find it overwhelming, each day sadder than the next. But if I gave the dollar I used to (without fail, feeling guilty if I ran out of cash), I'd be out a sandwich and a coffee by the time I got home from work. I've been saturated, made callous by a city of abuse. I can care all I want, but suddenly I'm overwhelmed by how little I can do. Programs like mine are out there, but how many people never make it that far? How many crazies slip through the cracks? And who's to blame? I find myself continually balancing compassion and contempt, and hating myself for it. Because—bottom line—there is a threshold of heartbreak and this place sacrifices your best instincts in the name of survival.

But it is hard. There's something unsafe happening, like a pasta pot with the lid on. Sooner or later, something starchy and hot is going to come boiling out and burning down the sides. Too many people are having too hard a time. Plus, it smells. The whole city smells. Bus exhaust and summer sewage are bad enough without exploring the spectrum of human stenches.

And then the drunks. The ones so drunk, so used to being drunk, they hardly notice their own shouting.

It feels like danger. Like Oran when all the rats start dying. A city poised on the knife blade between melting pot and mayhem.

5 comments:

M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M said...

it is for this, and many reasons, that i am so grateful for being able to break out when i did. i for one am certainly not looking back.

Scarlet-O said...

jesus gfox, not to be mundane, but you can WRITE. like, wtf-write.

i know what you mean, i'm a dollargiver too, and i know its a lost cause too (been to INDIA?) and ive been disgusted too, read: homeless professor, and i've heard that about how we're all one bad break away too but you know it isnt true... i live paycheck to paycheck too, well, not even, not even really too many checks involved, but i know i'll never be homeless. you know that right? pretty girl? so grounded? resourceful? no one would ever let you drown. these people, i dont judge NOBODY, who knows what their circumstances are, were, their wisdom, they could be lightyears beyond us in their drunken stupor (so drunk and so used to being drunk they don't even notice their own shouting.. GOD.DAMN.), but whoever they were, they didn't have these resources. it might be their choice in a way. the same electricity runs through us all but we're different machines and can only channel it through our own... channels... but, whatever their pain, their delusions, their tragic upbringing, they did not have the PEOPLE around them- they did not attract them, or they pushed them away, or they couldn't relate because they were earthbound living in the next universe, or the next one after that... there will always be these people... i don't know... they ask me Spare some change and I say, I cant change you, man. you're so endlessly impressive, what you do, i respect it, but, i don't KNOW that there's a solution?? what do you think?

Heather Taylor said...

I agree completely. Things are getting so much more worse these days with each hour that passes. Nothing good is happening. The rich keep getting rich and the poor keep getting poorer. The middle class is definitely disappearing in this...at this point, it seems like what we should do is start over again, a fresh start for everyone.

Anonymous said...

"Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft."
-- Mary Schmich