A New York Story
© Copyright 2004 by Dina Bern
A rainy November morning in New York City.
Brenda Jiménez, twenty two, medium height, slender, olive complexion, big slanted dark eyes, long straight black hair, got off the subway on 53rd and Lexington wrapped in a navy- blue raincoat. The morning was dark and cold. Brenda was on her way to interview a homeless person. She was studying sociology at City University and the interview was a requirement of the course. Her roommate had lent her a tape recorder. What a relief! she thought, Considering the weather, asking Lucille for the device was the best thing I could have done. It’s impossible to take notes on wet paper!
Brenda arrived at her destination, St. Bartholomew’s Church on 50th Street and Park Avenue. The young woman felt uneasy. The line of homeless on 50th between Park and Lexington was longer than she had expected. Brenda did not feel comfortable at all among these people who forced themselves to endure the cold and the rain to get a meal. But it was already Saturday. Her paper was due on Wednesday. As usual, she had procrastinated and now she had to find someone to interview or repeat the course.
Brenda proceeded to scan the faces of the people in the line. She wanted to find a face that would make her feel comfortable enough as to ask for an interview.
The line consisted of about sixty people, most of them male. There were more White than Black people. There were also a few Latinos and even fewer Asians. Some of them leaned against shopping carts that held their belongings while others sat on their shopping bags or suitcases. Only a few had umbrellas or raincoats to protect themselves from the rain. Most of them protected themselves with newspapers, cardboard or plastic boxes, plastic bags and pieces of cloth. The majority were older, but there were a few males, both White and Black, that she guessed were in their early twenties. These young men had their own group in the line. They talked and laughed and passed around cans of beer, oblivious to the rain.
It stopped raining all of a sudden.
A man approached the student,
“Can I help you, young lady?”
This is my subject! Brenda thought excited. Following her professor's instructions, the young woman paid attention to the physical characteristics and appearance of her would-be subject . She registered every detail in her mind for inclusion in her paper. The man was of small frame and about sixty, she guessed. A few inches over 5 feet and, guessing again, maybe 120 – 125 pounds. His white beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. His white hair, long enough to cover his ears, was damp and flat due to the rain. The man was wearing a black wool turtleneck, black worn-out corduroy pants, yellow construction boots and a long red coat with gold-colored metal bows as buttons. It looked like a woman’s coat.
Brenda explained the reason of her presence at the line. The man said that he wanted to be her subject.
When they were about to start, a Hispanic woman exited the Park Avenue entrance of the church and approached the interviewer. She was short, fat and about forty. Her dark round face was framed by orange curls. The woman identified herself as one of the workers of the program that fed the homeless. Without taking her hands out of the pockets of her long beige raincoat, the woman proceeded to ask the student to stop bothering the “poor people” that were there waiting for their breakfast. The “poor people” had been interviewed and photographed enough, according to her.
The interviewer decided that she was not going to repeat the sociology course on account of the intruder. Her shyness disappeared.
“Lady, please leave us alone! The fact that you voluntarily or with a salary help to feed the homeless doesn’t give you the right to rule their lives. This gentleman approached me himself and offered his assistance, which I gladly accepted.”
A tiny, very wrinkled Black lady in a long blue denim coat and a gray plastic bag on the head laughed aloud. She was standing behind the subject and witnessed the exchange. The Hispanic woman turned around with a sullen face and walked back to the Park Avenue entrance of the church.
The interview starts
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Fifty-seven, I think. I was born on a 2nd of February.”
“Where are you from?”
“Born and raised in New York City, Ma’m.”
“Are your parents New Yorkers as well?”
“No. They came from Armagh as teenagers and got married here.”
“Do you always get your food from places like this?”
“No. I get my own money to buy food.”
“I work once a week at my friend Al’s pub. I clean it and he pays me. I’m here because Al’s mother died in County Cavin on Wednesday. He had to close. But he’ll be back on Friday. He left me a note at Tito’s bodega. They are next-door neighbors. My money didn’t last this week because I bought a sweater for my son Dennis and spent all my money. I haven’t eaten for two days. I’m hungry.”
“Do you live with your son?”
“No. My son lives in St. John’s parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He’s a priest. I live on the streets. I like the freedom of the streets. My friend Al has offered me his place many times but I would have to work more days at his pub, which I don’t want to do. I hate to work! Besides, if I want to sleep within four walls I can always go his apartment or to a shelter.”
“Do you live on the streets in the winter?”
“Sure. If it gets particularly bad I sleep in shelters. Sometimes the weather is so bad that the shelters are full. Then I thank God for my friend Al.”
“Did you attend school in New York?”
“Yes. And started working for Pepsi Cola in Long Island City as soon as I finished high school. First I was a bottler. Later on they promoted me to foreman.”
“Was that your only job?”
“Yes. I left it about 20 years ago. I also left my family about 20 years ago.”
“Can you tell me about your family?”
“My wife’s name is Mary. We got married young. She had been here two years from County Mayo and was as beautiful as an angel. We had Dennis the following year and Jean the year after. My brother Michael died in a car accident the same day Dennis was born. I always had this feeling that his spirit was in Dennis.”
“Do you have any more brothers or sisters?”
“No. Michael was my only brother.”
“Older or younger?”
“Three years younger.”
“Why did you leave Mary and your kids?”
“When Jean was eleven, I came home from work one winter evening and found Mary in bed with our neighbor Tony Regazza while the kids were in the living room watching TV. I couldn’t do or say anything. I just stared at my naked wife and my naked friend and they just stared back at me. I remember going back to the living room and taking my coat, which I had left on the sofa between Jean and Dennis. I walked out and that was the start of almost 17 years as an alcoholic. But I don’t drink anymore.”
“You don’t drink anymore?”
“No. I don’t even smoke.”
“Did you ever smoke or take medication or drugs?”
“No. I have never been a smoker. I took prescription drugs when I was in the hospital to detox.”
“How many times have you been in the hospital?”
“Three times. It was always the same hospital. It’s uptown. I think the name is Presbyterian.”
“How did you end up there?”
“Al took me.”
“Where did you live during your years as an alcoholic?”
“I spent a few years in the Bowery, on the streets, and in and out of shelters. I really don’t remember very well.”
“How did you get money for your drinks?”
“Panhandling when I was capable of. At times my fellow drunkards shared their booze with me. But when nobody had anything to share and I couldn’t get any money, I would steal radios, watches, sunglasses and other small articles from stores on Canal Street. I used to sell the stuff at Al’s bar. He never bought anything but his customers did.”
“Were you ever in jail for stealing?”
“No. Luckily I never got caught.”
“Where is Al’s Bar?”
“The same block where I used to live with my family, upper forties and 9th.”
“This Al seems to be a good friend.”
“Yes. The only one I've got. He got me back in touch with Dennis and indirectly he’s the reason I stopped drinking.”
“You stopped drinking because of Al?”
“Well, yes. Not only because of him. You see, he told me four yeas ago that Dennis had become a priest and I hadn’t seen my son all those years. So Al said ‘I’ll arrange a meeting here for the two of you, but I love the boy too much to present you to him in the state you’re in. I don’t want to upset him. If you promise to stop drinking as of today, and by Christmas you have not touched booze, you'll see your son here.’”
“When did he tell you that?”
“It must have been July or August. In the summer, four years ago.”
“And you didn’t drink all those months until Christmas?”
“I haven’t touched a drink since then. And I don’t want to.”
“Do you know anything about your daughter?”
“Yes. When I was drinking Al told me that Tony left his wife and four kids to live with Mary, and that after Jean got pregnant, Mary used to beat her up a lot because she thought Tony had made her pregnant. Everybody in the neighborhood thought Tony had made little Jean pregnant. Al said I should stop drinking and take care of Jean but I just couldn’t then. I couldn’t do anything about it. All I did was drink. She ran away from home and no one knew about her for a while. She got in touch with Dennis a few years later. Through him we learned that she gave up her baby for adoption and ended up with good foster parents who really cared about her and gave her a good education. She’s a lawyer now. She works with a well-known law firm. I’ve tried many times to see her but she never wants to see me. That hurts…”
Brenda takes the tape recorder from Kevin's hand. Her professor had instructed her to record her own feelings and emotions as well, and she does just that. At this point, Kevin’s eyes fill with tears and he looks down. His reaction makes the interviewer emotional too. The device back in hand, the subject continues,
“But I’m happy that she overcame her bad experiences. Yes ma’m, I’m very happy for her.”
“How do you spend your day?”
“I go often to Washington Square to feed the pigeons. I also like to take walks in Greenwich Village, Central Park and the East Village. I visit churches and libraries. I visit the Mercantile Library a lot because I can eat there while reading the papers or a book. I don’t worry about how to get food like others like me do because I’ve got my own money. And I buy food only when I’m hungry. If I want to treat myself to a book or shoes or some clothing, I get my food from churches. If I want to treat Al or Dennis to a little present, I get my food from churches. Shelters too. I take my showers every other day at a men’s shelter on Bowery Street because I wear the same cloth for a full week. I could go to Al’s and change more often, but I’m sure he’d make me work. It’s enough with working the weekend day that I stay at his place.”
“What would you like to happen in the future?”
“I’d like to see my daughter. I would also like very much to become like any other normal human being and start liking to live within four walls. Maybe even work a few more days a week. Al says that we’re not getting any younger and that I’m lucky that he never had a wife who would let him have it for helping me out. He says that if he dies before me, I’ll have nobody to take care of me. But my boy Dennis says he will.”
At this point, Kevin fixes his eyes on a white Volvo that moves slowly towards the group of young men laughing and drinking beer ahead in the line. Then he looks at a man and a woman standing on the corner of 50th off Park. The woman yells “Yes!” on his direction, as if Kevin had asked her something that the interviewer didn’t hear. Did he signal a question in some way?
His large, round sky blue eyes stare at the student for a few seconds. Then, in a tone of voice totally different from the one he has used to answer the young woman’s questions, he says,
“Little girl, I think you have enough material for your paper now. You’ve got to get out of here because my partners and I are about to take care of the drug dealers making business from the white Volvo there.” He signals discretely with a movement of his head towards the car so that Brenda can see it. “It could get dangerous. Go home now.”
“What are you talking about? Are you a policeman?”
“Yes, I'm one of New York’s finest!” Smiling, he shows Brenda his identification.
“But then the story you told me….”
“I love to tell stories. It’s an Irish gift!”
“ You lied! How can I write your lies and give them to my professor?”
“You can choose not to write them. You can come back here tomorrow or next week. Maybe then you can talk to a real homeless.”
“I have no time. My paper is due on Wednesday.”
“Then, make believe that everything was true. If the white Volvo hadn’t showed up, you wouldn’t have known anyway.”
“Why did you do this to me?”
“I just wanted to protect you, young lady, you have such a baby face! O.K., O.K., I apologize. I’m sorry. It’s not always safe to approach the homeless in New York City, you know. I’m sorry!”
“I guess I have no choice. I’ll have to write your Kevin story. However, I’m going to add that my subject was a policeman on duty who likes to tell stories.”
“Fair enough. I’m Officer Francis Sullivan. Frank for short, at your service. I’m with the 44th Precinct. You’ll get an A, I’m sure. Now get out of here before the action starts. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Officer Frank Sullivan of the 44th Precinct was
right. Brenda Jiménez got an A on her paper.
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