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.