Maid, by Stephanie Land, is my story, or rather, my mother’s

Women like Land and my mother are the exception, not the rule.

Shortly after I started writing about homeless people in New York, my friend recommended I start reading Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land.
Right away, I was struck by the similarities Land’s story had to my own life, or rather, my mother’s.
Land, like my mother, was a pretty, white woman in her 20s when she became a mother and a victim of domestic violence. She starts the memoir off homeless after she leaves her abusive boyfriend and works her way to a studio apartment, a one-bedroom apartment and eventually to Missoula, Montana where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and started using her story to advocate for those in similar circumstances.
Most of the story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, a region my mom and two of my younger siblings currently reside and where I spent my formative years.
In her book, Land describes what it’s like to live on food stamps, to need childcare grants, and other government assistance. She describes the stigma she faced as a single mother who relied on, and needed, help to survive and the grueling manual labor she endured.
There are a few key differences between Land’s stories and my mother’s. Land is a writer. She was given the gift of articulating her plight. My mother, an intelligent and sometimes eloquent woman who has privileges awarded to her that many other mothers don’t, could not articulate herself in the way Land did. Though Land, as Barbara Ehrenreich, a New York Times bestselling author, says in her forward to the memoir, had the help of editors. Her story was told with help.
Land touches on trauma. Her daughter’s father continued to be emotionally and verbally abusive long after she left him. Her family was not able or willing to help her when she needed it most. She describes the trauma of living in poverty, but she doesn’t describe anything as messy as what my family (and I assume many others) live through. It’s not clear if her experiences did not reach the same level of messiness or if she chose to omit those parts for fear that they would overshadow her story and the goodwill she aimed to procure for those in need.


My mother became pregnant at 19, much younger than Land’s 28. She was a junior in college, had been valedictorian in high school and had grown up middle class in Norfolk, VA. Her family even had a maid when she was growing up. 
But her father was abusive, mostly to her older brother but to her mom and herself too. He was also a gambler and an addict. She claimed he’d lost her college fund and in her later college years. She and my grandmother rented out an apartment and lived without his financial help.
By the time I came along, she was also a survivor of multiple sexual assaults. She had not received the support she needed after these traumas from her family or community. She was told, as a child, that she was a liar and the messages she was taught at Catholic school reasserted the slut shaming she learned to internalize.
My father was 23 and fresh off the boat at Norfolk’s Navy base. He joined the Navy during peacetime as a photographer. He thought it was his chance to see the world but then the Gulf War occurred and the pictures of civilian bodies he was forced to take were more than he’d bargained for.
Land met Jamie and knew instantly she liked him because she saw the Bukowski on his bookshelf. They were together for about four months before she became pregnant. 
My parents bonded over 90s era hippie culture. Together they traveled across the U.S. following bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish. My parents were “dating” for about three months before my mother discovered she was pregnant. 
My father, understandably, was not enthused. He tried to convince her to terminate the pregnancy or give me up for adoption. But she was convinced that I was a sign. She had been on birth control and thought I was a miracle. She thought she was meant to have me. And my father, though he didn’t want to be a dad, also wasn’t ready to abandon his child. His own dad was not present enough in his life and he didn’t want to make the same mistakes.
So, the two stayed together living in places like Montana and Colorado, working in restaurants and trying to finish college. They were together throughout the first year of my life, maybe up until I turned two, before my mother realized that their relationship was unhealthy and left.
She returned to Norfolk for a short period, but she didn’t want me exposed to the same world she grew up in and she feared that her family, though well-meaning, would instill values and practices that were toxic.


So, we moved to Burlington, Vt. where she went to college. We lived above Church Street in an apartment with one other woman. We were happy there. I don’t think I had a lot of toys, but I had plenty of books and she read to me at least once a day. Eventually, we got a small TV. It was black and white, but it played my copy of Sleeping Beauty which I would watch over and over again. I never wanted for food or clothing. My mother made a lot of my dresses herself and she’d give them to me for my birthday or Christmas and tell me they were from Mrs. Clause.
Once a week, we’d go out for lunch. We walked through the cobblestones on Church Street and eat at Stone Soup or Adams Apple where I always had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with chips. Occasionally, our friend Jessica would join us and we’d go to a sushi place where I ordered unagi and miso soup. Looking back, I know that we didn’t have much money but life felt abundant to me.
Sometimes, I’d catch on to some of the stigmas my mother faced. At preschool, I remember a little girl who repeatedly bullied me. When I asked her why she told me her parents had told her to stay away from me because my mother had dreadlocks.
There were also times when people would shame my mother for being so young and having a daughter. Strangers would say things to her while we were shopping. She got a lot of dirty looks. Other parents were also rude to her. Other women saw her –years younger, beautiful, and a child serving as proof of her questionable morals — as a threat.
Things changed though when my mother met Billy.
Billy is the type guy who, if he were smarter, would be a cult leader. I remember that we (my mom and I) thought he was handsome and charming. He used to read me as many pictures books as I could carry and the way he made my mother smile made me certain she’d found her knight in shining armor. 
In her book, Land describes a relationship she stayed in because it eased her financial burden and gave her daughter a safe male role model. Single motherhood is difficult not just because raising a child is difficult but because the world is easier for women who have partners.
But Billy didn’t remain our knight for long. He was our downfall. Billy was abusive in every way possible and he became even worse once my mother became pregnant.
Most of our time with Billy involved us moving, a lot. Billy would leave us and then appear with presents begging for forgiveness.
I think we both stopped wanting him to come back. But there were still moments.


I remember living in a motel room for a few weeks. I don’t think we came with Billy, but he showed up anyway. It was my 6th birthday. We started it by watching a Star Wars marathon. It was the first time I’d seen Star Wars.
 I was angry that Billy showed up, but he brought me a ballerina marionette doll. I think it was my only present and that softened my stance toward him. He said he wanted to be there for my birthday. He and mom left for what felt like forever. When they returned, as they were playing with my brother, he took his first steps. We called it his birthday present to me.
Land opens her book with the story of how her daughter took her first steps in a homeless shelter. My family was fortunate enough to have never lived in a homeless shelter, but my little brother took his first steps in a motel room while we attempted and failed to hide from his abusive father.
Eventually, with the help of a local domestic violence group, my mother, brother and I ran away from Billy to Tahoe, California.
In California, my mother struggled. She worked in the kitchen at a local ski resort. At first, we spent a month or so living in the living room of a friend’s one-bedroom apartment. Eventually, we moved into a big house we couldn’t afford.
That summer, I left for a few weeks to visit my father and his new girlfriend in Rhode Island.


Only a year before we left for California, my dad had followed us to Vermont. While on the East Coast, he’d met a woman at a jam band music festival. Around the time that they were getting serious and looking to move in together, he got a call from my mother telling him we were moving to California to escape Billy. 
My dad, who felt like he was finally getting his life together stayed, but he felt resentful towards my mom for leaving. I don’t think he really understood how awful Billy had been and I think part of him didn’t want to know or to empathize with my mother.
In Land’s book, while she’s staying with her father and stepmother, after leaving her abusive boyfriend, she witnesses an instant where her father is physically aggressive to his wife. Land leaves and ends up at a homeless shelter but her father, in an attempt to deflect from his own misdeeds, tells the rest of their family that she lied about being abused by her daughter’s father.
Even today, I find myself angry at family members when their faces or voices change as they ask about my mother. Most of them know by now that snide remarks are unwelcome. To them, she is a villain. I want to scream that it was this misogyny displayed by them, and the rest of the world, when she needed help and support that resulted in her situation, not the other way around.


When I returned that first summer, my mother was living with my brother in a tent. It was summer, and she managed to make the whole experience fun like they were camping. 
My mother, who hated the long nights working in the kitchen, desperately tried to find another job. At the start of the school year, she left me for a few weeks with a couple of family friends. She and my brother went to Santa Rosa to visit a restaurant owner who was professionally courting her.
I didn’t like the thought of us moving again and having to start over. I don’t know what happened but my mother either didn’t take or didn’t get the job offer.
Instead, she began working as a manager for a local coffee shop, The Java Hut. My mother enjoyed her job there. They seemed to hire mostly young, attractive women who she made fast friends with. But the hours were still long. She’d wake up at 4 or 3 a.m. and not come home until 7 p.m.
We moved into a two-bedroom condo. At first, I got the loft bedroom to myself but soon my mother realized that the expenses of childcare were adding up. 
She met a teenage girl who had run away from an abusive household and we gave her the bedroom, in exchange for watching me and my brother. That meant that the three of us shared a small room together. The room consisted of our three beds, two bunk beds and my mother’s below, which my brother and I used to jump onto from the top bunk. We delighted in thrill of catapulting ourselves down.


At school, I knew the other parents didn’t like my mother. I knew the teachers didn’t like her either. I went to a charter school filled with children of rich yuppies. My mother, who no longer had dreadlocks was one of the few single and notably young parents. While most of the families at my school lived in nice neighborhoods with big houses, we could only afford to live in Kings Beach, where all the immigrant families lived. It wasn’t the sort of place many kids came over for playdates at.
We moved again once I reached third-grade to Humboldt County. Billy had followed us to California and tried to fight for custody of my brother. During this time, my mother seemed to change. She was no longer as present. She was thin and pale and constantly stressed. Billy was threatening her and she wasn’t sure which threats she should take seriously. She grew paranoid. I don’t think she was eating.
Land writes in her memoir, “we work, we love, we do. And the stress of it all, the exhaustion, leaves us hollowed. Scraped out. Ghosts of our former selves.” My mother was becoming less and less like the woman I remembered in Vermont and more and more a shadow person, existing on caffeine and granola bars and struggling every day to survive. We were poor even if I didn’t feel it. 
While my brother’s needs and my needs were met, she went without. She used rags and socks for feminine hygiene when she couldn’t afford to buy pads. She went without food and without sleep as she fretted into the night about survival, both because we were poor and because Billy consistently threatened our lives.


Shortly after we moved from Tahoe to Humboldt County, my grandmother moved from Virginia to California to help. 
In her book, Land describes her own relationship with her mother, which had grown tense after she became an adult. Land’s mother and her boyfriend helped Land move out of the homeless shelter. Her mother demanded that they go out to eat and when Land couldn’t afford to pay for her $11 burger, her mother’s boyfriend made a scene. 
My mother hasn’t always felt supported by my grandmother. My grandmother isn’t perfect and didn’t always know the best way to help my mother, but my mother is fortunate to have had someone who loved her enough to move across the country to help.
Land didn’t have that. She was truly alone. Those are the people who end up in homeless shelters; the ones who don’t have anyone else who can help them.
Still, my grandmother’s presence didn’t alleviate my mother’s stress. The baggage of having her mother in her home, of being reliant on her and having to contend with the conflicting values my grandmother was instilling in my brother and me, was too much for my mother to bare. 
And even though we had my grandmother and her help with childcare and rent, we were still poor.


I remember the first time we went to the food bank. I’m sure we had had financial assistance before. We were the recipients of toys for tots and other charity programs, but I didn’t have to go pick the toys up. Didn’t have to see the pity. I, being 9 and increasingly angry at the world, threw a fit about having to go to the food bank. At this point, I felt certain that I would never make friends and I knew that my poverty was one piece of why I felt so lonely and unliked. During the car ride to the food bank, I wore a paper bag over my face and waited in the car while my family went in to pick up food.
Humboldt, however, was an okay place to be poor. Many of my friends were also on assistance. It wasn’t something that made me a social piraya. 
My mother moved from work in food manufacturing, coffee shops, odd jobs on the side and eventually to bookkeeping. When I was 12, after my mother was dealing with the financial outcome of a broken engagement, we moved into a two bedroom apartment with my grandmother. The apartment had less space than my boyfriend’s current New York City studio, but the four of us managed.
I remember a cool and popular girl coming home with us after cheerleading practice one day, she took one look at our neighborhood and our tiny apartment and told me I lived in the ghetto.


The summer in-between seventh and eighth grade my mother met Chris.
I knew almost immediately that Chris was bad news. Three months into their relationship, his house caught fire and he pushed himself into ours. My grandmother had left at this point and my mother was having trouble paying for our house alone.
Chris was abusive, and it didn’t take long for his true colors to show. My mother, who was in a deep depression at the start of their relationship, didn’t seem strong enough this time to put up much of a fight.
At night, I could hear them fighting. She was explaining to him why she didn’t want to have sex a certain way. It reminded her, she said, of when she was raped. I could hear him pouting and pressuring her. 
Then, there’d be a crash and sobbing and I’d rouse myself from sleep and rush to the scene. Chris would be standing over my mother, who was curled up on the floor. He would breathe shallowly and shake. 
I left after eighth grade. I was supposed to stay at my dad’s house for only a year to visit my new baby brother. I stayed, mostly because my mother couldn’t find the strength to leave Chris. She became pregnant with his child and, while I was away, Chris almost killed her, nearly breaking her spine.
My mother’s depression grew. Her friends stopped speaking to her to encourage her to leave Chris.


Meanwhile, River’s father, Billy, had moved to Oregon and was threatening taking custody if my mother didn’t move also. 
She, along with Chris, moved to a tiny shack on a mountaintop overlooking Ashland, Oregon. I visited the summer between 10th and 11th grade. The shack had a tin roof, uneven floors and the water was brown and smelled like skunk. Neither Chris nor my mother, had work when they moved and the economy was in an especially tight spot. Every day for a year my mother applied for jobs. She handed out her trusty resume and her references and attempted to court businesses. Eventually, she was able to obtain unemployment. Meanwhile, Chris squandered away the savings she’d built for the move.
Eventually, we were successful in running Chris out of my mother’s home.


The next summer, when I came to visit, she had moved to lower income housing. It was two bedrooms. My brother had his own room and my mother and little sister shared. There was a community garden. They lived off of Wick and food stamps. About once a month, they’d spend less than $10 for the whole family at a local pizza shop that had a Grateful Dead cover band. 
My mother was grateful that she could live in a community that had safe options for people like her, but she was also terrified. She was going to school for a bachelor’s in accounting and contracted as a bookkeeper with a nonprofit drug counseling center. She knew if she made too much money, she would lose her benefits and that she wouldn’t have enough money to make up for the loss. Meanwhile, the company she was bookkeeping for was violating various tax laws. When she approached them about it, they told her to look the other way. She was afraid of losing her bookkeeping license.
In Maid, Land describes a similar level of insecurity. She doesn’t have money for medical bills or for emergencies. “Every day I walked on a rug that could be yanked out from under me at any moment,” she writes. 
When my mother found a better job as an apprentice for a small accountant’s office, she had to move from lower income housing. She walked her belongings miles to the new house. Pulling the belongings and my little sister along in a red wagon.


My mother got her degree a semester before I did. In the summer of 2016, she graduated with honors. She is no longer below the poverty line, but she still struggles to support my two siblings and my now elderly grandmother. She works long erratic hours and is reading up on how to conduct yourself as a woman in the workplace. Last year, her work sponsored her attendance at a women’s business conference.
I know she’s not in the clear yet. Land isn’t really either at the end of her book, but things are getting better and there’s a sense of optimism.
The truth is, like Land, my mother wouldn’t have been able to raise my siblings and I if it weren’t for the few government programs offered to her and even then, it was a struggle. No one should have to go through the hardships of holding together a family without assistance.
And, had someone believed my mother about her abuse, about the sexual assault, she would have been able to pull herself out of poverty sooner. Women like Land and my mother are the exception, not the rule. 
I don’t believe people should have to work as hard as they did. Many other women have to work even harder. It is on all of us to combat issues like poverty and domestic violence. We can do so by voting for candidates that support financial assistance, by donating to programs that combat poverty and by listening and supporting women.
If you or someone you know is in involved in domestic or dating violence encourage them to talk to a crisis’s hotline. For resources on domestic violence check out the thehotline.org or Loveisrespect.org.
For resources for homelessness check out the nationalhomeless.org.

The unnamed woman

The woman did not look homeless. She looked healthy, clean. She seemed more like a sweet, wise grandmother than a woman navigating the streets of New York.

As I walked to a weekly writing meet-up, I passed a small woman.
She was strange. Near Columbus Avenue, she stood with a laminated sign hung around her neck. It read something like “I am homeless, please help.” She had a colorful hat with a yellow pattern peeking out beneath a blue hood. She was elderly and when I gave her a dollar she smiled nicely and, with a faint accent, said: “God bless.”
The woman did not look homeless. She looked healthy, clean. She seemed more like a sweet, wise grandmother than a woman navigating the streets of New York.
When I asked if I could ask her some questions for the blog, she was happy to oblige but preferred that I neither record or take notes. She said she was happy to help, provided I keep her anonymous. She might work again she, she explained. She didn’t want her image tarnished by homelessness.
I didn’t ask her any questions. She just started her story, before I’d asked anything. She wanted me to know why and how she had gotten to her position.
She said she’d worked for 35 years in New York City and invested her money into the stock market, where it was, eventually, lost. Sometime after then, she got lung cancer. While she’s taking medication for the cancer, there’s a risk it may spread to her other lung. As she said this, she turned away to cough into a tissue before turning back to me. She and her partner, who she’s been with for 18 years, tried to go to the shelters but the shelters would not take them because they weren’t from the United States.
The shelters weren’t preferable. She couldn’t sleep with her partner and they couldn’t have their own rooms. It was dangerous, she said. Many people at the shelter, she said, drink or use drugs.
Her partner’s PTSD also makes finding a living situation difficult. He is a survivor of 9/11, she said.
“So, it’s different,” she said of her story and her struggle. “Because of the trauma.” He’s getting better, she assured me.
The woman seemed to want to separate herself from others who are asking for money. She told her story matter of factly. Not allowing for pity. Right now, she admitted, she and her partner have a place to live.
She was asking for money so she could pay for the housing. She gets a little bit of money, she said, because of her cancer. But it’s not enough.
Towards the end of our conversation, before she kindly dismissed me, she offered some sage advice, as many elders bestow upon their younger, naïve, counterparts.
“As long as you have god in your heart, it’s going to be okay,” she said.

Calvin

“God is good to me,” he said.

I met Calvin two Wednesdays ago while I was scouring Grand Central Station, looking for someone to interview. It took me awhile. I didn’t see anyone asking for money until I made my way along a corridor leading to the 7 train.
There he was a small man in clothes too large for his thin frame, a cardboard sign and a cup accompanying him. His face had an openness to it that made him approachable. I placed a dollar in his cup and crouched down to speak to him.
When I asked if I could interview him, he didn’t blink an eye. He also didn’t mind when I asked if I could record our conversation.
Calvin is a sociable guy of 53. He comes to Grand Central almost every day, he said, because people know him there and they like him. He’s made friends. “Thank God,” he told me.
That’s another thing about Calvin, he’s as spiritual as his name is biblical. Throughout our conversation, God came up many times. He credits the Lord and Jesus Christ for his ability to stay alive.
“God is good to me,” he said.
Calvin became homeless after his apartment in Jamaica, Queens burned down. Jamaica wasn’t a great neighborhood.
“It’s bad out there,” he said, or at least it was when he lived there. Nicer neighborhoods, he said, were too expensive for him. “I guess it is what it is, I don’t know,” he said.
Calvin lives primarily in Grand Central and sleeps on the trains when it’s cold. “It’s warm out there,” he said. When it does get cold and he can’t get on a train, he said, “I pray that I don’t die out here … I see people sleeping outside. My brain’s not going to let me sleep outside.”
The idea of hypothermia scares him, he related it to a slow poison. “When you’re sleeping you might not wake up,” he said.
In New York, there are homeless outreach officers who walk around the subway stations wearing orange vests. When I asked Calvin about them he claimed, “they know me.”
He’s on a wait list for Section 8 housing thanks to these outreach agents. That, he told me, is common practice if an outreach agent has found a homeless person who declines to go to a shelter.
At the time of the interview, Calvin said he’d been on the wait list for the past six months. When I asked if they had given him a time in which he would get off the wait list, he said they visited him every day. That day, however, they did not come.
Calvin doesn’t go to shelters. “The shelters are bad,” he said. Women’s shelters are better, “family shelters are too.”
People coming out of prisons, who can’t find apartments end up in the shelters, he said. That makes it dangerous.
Calvin was once assaulted in a shelter. He claimed the staff on duty didn’t care and did nothing to stop the attack.
“I will take my chances out here because out here I can run,” he said. Still, the subway station isn’t that much safer than the streets.
“I’m scared out here,” he admitted. “I got attacked out here too.” While in his regular spot at Grand Central, he claimed, somebody came up to him and kicked him seven times in his face.
Police were helpful, he said. The officers tracked down his attacker, even pulling the attacker off a train. He was pinned to the floor and put in handcuffs, Calvin said. The offender, according to Calvin, got 12 months in jail and was charged with a criminal misdemeanor.
When I asked Calvin whether he thought that was enough time, he showed empathy towards his attacker.
“He’s a school kid,” he said. “So, I think maybe he learned his lesson; maybe he didn’t but I hope he did.” Calvin said it was unfortunate when young people were sent to prison. “It’s crazy,” he said. “Younger people got to get wiser and smarter.” To stay alive and keep out of jail, he clarified.
“I’m not going to jail for anybody,” he said.
When I asked if he had friends who’d been to jail, Calvin laughed and raised his eyebrows. “I know a lot of people who’ve been to jail,” he said with emphasis on the word know. The idea of jail frightens him because it’s difficult to get out and he’s known people who died in jail, he said. He thinks people end up in jail by stealing and lying.
“It doesn’t hurt to tell the truth,” he told me. “God is good all the time. Every time God wakes me up I say, thank you, Jesus.”
Part of Calvin’s faith in God comes from the fact that he’s still living, despite not being able to read or write.
“I can’t read; I can’t write but I’m still alive,” he said as though surprised by the statement himself. “You know?” he asked, then repeated the statement back again, letting it sink in.
When I asked why that was, he got emotional. “It makes me sad,” he said.
We paused for a second as he tried to pull himself together and I felt guilty, wondering how best to comfort him.
“I always couldn’t read and write when I was a kid,” he said. His report card used to fill him with emotion and doubt. “I couldn’t get it right,” he shrugged.
He sniffed and then declared that he had a cold or the flu but, “I’m getting better,” he said.
He pulled out a Redbull. “I drink these every day. They say they’re no good for me. I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” he said.
Still feeling guilty for touching on a sensitive issue, I asked for his name and shook his hand before saying goodbye. “Get home safe,” he called after me as I left.
I’ve been back to that spot a few times since the interview. Twice Calvin wasn’t there, but once he was.
His hair was long, rather than short, like I remembered it, and it was sticking out on the sides. He had his cardboard sign and as I passed I locked eyes with him. I was late for an appointment and had no money to give but I waved. I don’t know if he recognized me, but he smiled and waved back.

John

He seemed to allude to a dicey past, one he doesn’t want his daughter, niece or nephew to ever endure.

John sits daily outside the turnstiles at the stop I frequent when my train isn’t running. Most of the time when I’ve seen him he’s been a silent figure. His clothes have been tattered, sometimes he looks unbathed, his face is always downcast. I’ve seen him huddled in the corner his eyes closed and his head sunk as though he were sleeping.

He holds a sign. With black felt marker ink and cardboard. I can never make out the whole inscription. I think sometimes it changes.

One cold night, after nearly a two-week span of missing my weekly interview. I walked past, then stopped and dug a dollar out of my wallet. Up to this point my only interviews had been with people who had initiated first. I usually stuck to myself when passing people on the street with signs but no audible ask. John wasn’t someone I would have normally approached on my own. When I did, I was surprised by his humanness.

I had thought he might be too tired, too cold to converse with—when you see people living in inhumane conditions it’s hard to imagine that there can be enough person left –But he wasn’t. John said he came to my station because he was disabled. In his back he’d been shot.

He had, at the time at least, people to stay with. New York City was going through an arctic outbreak when I  spoke with John.  On nights when it was cold, he said, it was easier to find places to stay.

When I asked about shelters he said he didn’t need them. He has family in the area, particularly a niece, nephew and 16-year-old daughter he’d like to help support. None of the children stay with him. He admitted that he was transient and that sometimes he does find himself spending the night at the train stop.

When I asked why he kept coming back, why to that spot, he said he had found help there. People were kind to him sometimes. They bought him groceries or gave him money. He said he didn’t want to have to ask but that he didn’t know what else to do.

“I’d rather ask than do something criminal, or be selling drugs,” he said. Though he admitted that soliciting money and loitering in New York is technically illegal, he said most police don’t care and said it was better than the other activities he could use to get money.

John’s accent was rough and his words were sometimes mumbled.  As we talked I had to lean in close to hear his story. He seemed to allude to a dicey past, one he doesn’t want his daughter, niece or nephew to ever endure. When I asked him about 311 (a number New Yorkers are encouraged to call if they see people in need) or other New York City outreach programs he admitted that he hadn’t heard of them.

People, for the most part, he said had been kind to him.

As I turned to leave, the ink in my pen freezing by the second, he asked why I was doing this.

I told him, I was just curious to hear what he had to say. He smiled and his eyes were kind as he wished me a good night.

When does charity become problematic?

She smiled up at me in a way that reminded me of my little brother’s teenage girlfriend. It was a polite, good girl smile. Like she wanted to be likable.

Stepping outside of my office building after work, I noticed a girl sitting on the sidewalk with her back against the wall. She had a sign that read, “Please help, I’m sorry to ask.”
It was an especially cold night and I felt shocked seeing her there. I don’t remember seeing any other homeless people posted in that spot before.
She was young looking, she couldn’t have been that much older than me and she was pretty with a long skirt, a frail figure, and long straight hair. She was wearing a long billowy skirt and a hoody.
As people passed her by, she avoided eye contact. A businesswoman stopped to put money in her cup, a rarity in busy midtown Manhattan. My eyes teared up watching the scene.
I, not having any cash, turned towards my office building and went to the vending machine. Trying to go for the healthiest items I bought about five different snacks and headed back down.
When I neared her spot, I felt nervous. I suddenly realized that all of my items contained nuts.
I approached her with my items. Putting on my most cheerful and most feminine voice. “Excuse me,” I said. She smiled up at me in a way that reminded me of my little brother’s teenage girlfriend. It was a polite, good girl smile. Like she wanted to be likable.
I stumbled over my words suddenly feeling ineffectual. “Are you allergic to nuts?” I asked. She could see the abundance of granola bars I was carrying.
“No,” she said smiling back at me. The smile was understanding and reassuring like she could feel the anxiety I felt. I suddenly felt like she was doing me more good than I was for her. She was comforting my awkwardness.
“May I give these to you?” I held the snacks out suddenly realizing that I had not asked her what she needed and if she could ask for anything it probably wouldn’t be granola bars.
She nodded and, clumsily, I passed the snacks to her.
I started pulling out my phone, poised and ready for what came next.
“Feel free to say no,” I started, “but I’m a journalist and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
She looked at me, her smile not faulting but her eyes hinting at fear, or sadness, or something I couldn’t quite touch. She shook her head no.
Embarrassed, my cheeks flushed. I wished her a good night and left.
The exchange left me feeling guilty. I had wanted so badly to be a savior and here was someone who was the epitome of vulnerability. I felt creepy for my eagerness to help her and even worse because my idea of helping felt ultimately exploitative. If I weren’t writing this blog would I have given her a second thought? And would I have been so eager to help if she were ugly, or old, or a man?
I wondered if my help had even been wanted. Maybe she didn’t need food. Maybe she needed money for a room or ticket out of the city. Maybe she only needed money and why had I assumed that anything would have been better than nothing? In the future, I resolved to ask before I gave.

Robert

He stated that there were a lot of people in the world, homeless or otherwise, who weren’t in their right mind.

I met Robert while I was walking to my train after a Meetup event. He told me I had a pretty smile and asked for money.
I didn’t have any cash and I told him so. As he saw me passing by a store window and looking hungrily in, he asked if I could get him some food instead. I obliged and asked what he would like, thinking I could also get something for myself. He asked for a Gatorade, macaroni and cheese and a meatball and I went in to fetch the requested food. I got two mac and cheeses along with the meatball and Gatorade, one was for me. The food was priced modestly.
As the cashier rang me up I asked for two bags.
“Oh, is this for the guy outside?” she asked. She was young, probably my age. I nodded yes.
“He’s a good soul,” she replied.
I gave him the food and timidly asked if I could interview him.
He was a stout man with a toothy grin and a child-like sense of wonder.
He told me I looked like Strawberry Shortcake.
When I told him I was a journalist, he seemed excited.
“Oh boy,” he said, “You’re gonna love me.” He started in on his story before I could even get my notebook out, but when I asked if I could record him he was hesitant. He said no and I tried my best to capture his fast-moving words in my notebook.
Robert was adopted at three-weeks-old. His adopted father ran a winery in Brooklyn. He lived in a nice house with many adopted siblings. He described the house with zealous, as though his upbringing had been something of a fairy tale, and, in some ways, it reminded me of Cinderella.
Robert was a foster-child. His adopted parents decided to keep him, he said, because no one else wanted him. Or at least, that’s what they later told him. At ten, his parents told him he wasn’t their child. He said the truth had felt like a betrayal. His parents said things like, “you’re lucky to live in this house.” He was much younger than all of his adopted sibling, most of whom were adults by the time he was 10.
So Robert grew up doing a lot of chores. He put up Christmas lights, cleaned the pool, painted the house and worked on the garden. The house took a lot of upkeep, he said. But the chore he remembered most was making wine.
Robert’s father ran and operated a winery.
His brother even wrote a book about it called “Little Old Winemaker,” Robert said.
Robert said he’d like to read the book. To see whether he was included in it.
When Robert’s parents died, his siblings stopped speaking to him, he said.
He claimed they wouldn’t let him attend his mother’s funeral. When he had gone to his father’s funeral, he said his siblings had treated him poorly.
He didn’t get any money after his parents had died. He said his siblings had stated that he wasn’t their family and he hasn’t seen them in years.
Robert also mentioned that he used to have a drug problem. At 11-years-old his almost grown sister had given him a joint, he said. His older brother also used to take him along when he went to buy drugs.
Robert was adamant about his current soberness. “I like being sober,” he said. “It’s hard enough being homeless.”
Robert was forthcoming about the difficulties of homelessness. He stated that there were a lot of people in the world, homeless or otherwise, who weren’t in their right mind. He told me that serial killers in major cities across the U.S. make a habit of picking on the homeless.
He said he didn’t sleep in shelters because they were too dangerous.
When he did sleep, he stated, that it was scary. People come up to him, they touch him, he said.
“I’ve had cops come at me and beat my feet with their batons. It made it hard for me to walk,” he said.
Our conversation ended when I tried to push further about his relationship with his siblings.
I asked if they resented him because he became addicted to drugs.
Robert politely told me that it was getting cold and he’d like to eat his meal.
So I bid him goodbye and left toward my subway stop.

VooVoo

“You can’t stay away from people and think that you know people,” he explained.

On a subway ride home, I met VooVoo. He asked for my left-over soft pretzel and I asked him if he would be open to talking to me. VooVoo is the first homeless person I’ve ever talked to with the intention of later writing about. I was nervous that he would be alarmed when I told him I was a journalist. I expected his guard to go up, but it didn’t. He didn’t seem to mind talking. He had a thick accent, watery eyes, and warm looking clothing. He was large and sometimes he spoke so forcefully on certain points of his story that I felt scared. But mostly he was gentle.
We only spoke for seven minutes before he had to get off the train.
He told me he had lived in the streets for 11, or maybe 12, years on and off since his father died from a heart attack in 2007. He said he used to live with some other family members in the Bronx, but that his building caught fire.
His father had two remaining relatives but VooVoo didn’t seem to get along with either of them. VooVoo described their actions as mischievous and deceitful but didn’t go into detail.
For three years, after his father had died, VooVoo said, he consistently paid rent.
Since then, he said, he’s been sleeping on trains and in subway stations trying to keep warm. When I asked if it was scary sleeping in public spaces he promptly replied that he, “didn’t think like that.” What he meant, I think, was that he couldn’t think like that.
VooVoo collects Social Security he said. I didn’t ask what for, but he seemed like he could be retirement age. He said he collects about $771 a month and needs $25 more dollars to find himself a place to live. He said that he’s been looking for rooms to rent that would only cost $120.
I exclaimed that that price point seemed impossibly low and he agreed. He went on to say that it was especially difficult because he couldn’t always contact real estate agents to help him find a room. He doesn’t have a cell-phone and finding pay phones in New York City is becoming increasingly difficult.
I tried to steer the conversation towards what it was like to be homeless. I asked if there was anything he wished people knew about him.
“My father explained it to me before he died,” he started.
He didn’t seem to think the world owed him anything.
“Everybody has their life to live,” VooVoo said. “People should be in their own business and know themselves.”
He felt like it was impossible for other people to truly know him, or anyone else unless they made the effort to be more than an acquaintance.
“You can’t stay away from people and think that you know people,” he explained.
But he also seemed to believe that it was okay if you believed not all people were worth knowing. He talked about people living in their own filth.
“If you’re living in a cesspool of material waste you think somebody needs to know you?” he asked. “I wouldn’t want to know those people. Would you?”
When I pressed for further information, VooVoo started explaining a myriad of ideas I couldn’t piece together. Chinese people who lived in a condo near his father’s house, a cult, and finally his father doing something to them.
“What?” I asked him to repeat himself.
“My father murdered them,” he bellowed out.
I bit my lip, realizing that we likely weren’t going to get much further.
VooVoo seemed to be done also. He told me the train had reached his stop, took his pretzel and left.