Ethical Consumerism

I think he wanted to rent to someone like my boyfriend. Someone young and ambitious with a solid and steady income. I wonder, though, if a family needed that space more.

Living in New York it feels like you’re solicited 1,000 times a day. Whether it be from people in need, from flashing billboards, or from eager salespeople, the world is constantly asking for your money, and the less you have the more and more expensive and demanding the world gets. Food and necessities become increasingly difficult to find. And with so many options, it can be difficult to figure out where you should spend your money.
A few months ago, my boyfriend moved to New York City, which means I too (essentially) have a new home. I love his (my) neighborhood. It feels like Europe in the middle of my New York. The neighborhood is primarily filled with Italian, and some Polish immigrants. It’s littered with happy families.
Small children skip through the streets clinging to their parents’ hands. Old women push their laundry carts. At one café near the apartment, old and middle age men sit all day and night drinking espresso and gesticulating at one another. Flyers hang at local businesses for Polish punk-rap bands.
One of my favorite establishments is a tiny grocery store calling itself a “farmer’s market.” It’s a non-yuppified health food haven. All of the prices are cheap and not just for the city. Most produce is organic, and there are yummy European treats abound.
Sometime last week, I noticed that the market doors were tightly shuttered. I thought it must be a fluke, maybe the market was just closed for the day. But it still has not reopened. While walking past it, I caught a young woman coming out of the building and asked her what had happened. Was the market permanently closed? She told me it was. She didn’t know why; she just lived above it.
I felt so sad, not just because it was the most affordable grocery option, but because I felt as though my boyfriend and I were partially responsible.
We hadn’t gone to the market in a few weeks. It didn’t have as many options as two neighboring, larger, grocery stores.
Lately, I’ve been traversing the neighborhood alone, and I realized that my sweet little market wasn’t the only business heading out. For rent signs hang out of a few windows, including a small clothing store with luxury fashion items. A man, who I assume is the owner, stands outside the shop every night looking stony. He wears a large Indiana Jones type hat and stares me down as I pass. Occasionally, he waves. But usually, I’m too intimidated to meet his eyes. I want to know his story. Why his little shop of beautiful gowns is moving. Is it gone? Is it done forever?
Many people in my neighborhood do not speak American English. When I drop our laundry off, the woman at the counter kindly smiles and communicates with single words and hand gestures.
The man who runs the local hole-in-the-wall diner speaks more English, but we can’t always understand each other’s accents. He gave me a free cookie once because I said it looked good. My welcome into the neighborhood was kind, though I was a clear outsider.
I wonder if it will soon lose its sweet charm as more and more outsiders move in, demanding full grocery stores and the trappings of American suburbia.
When my boyfriend moved into his new apartment. The landlord, a 25-year-old Queen’s native, whose parents helped him buy the building, told me he didn’t think it was suitable for a family. The apartment, which is larger than the three bedroom I pay rent at, seemed plenty large enough for a small family to me. I think he wanted to rent to someone like my boyfriend. Someone young and ambitious with a solid and steady income.
I wonder, though, if a family needed that space more.
As I was walking past the empty farmer’s market one night, to another grocery store, a young woman approached me holding four single roses.
“Excuse me,” she said bluntly.
She had a Jersey accent and was thin, her energy rapid and urgent.
“I just lost my job and I have a four year old I have to support,” she said. She asked me to buy a rose. I paused. I’d feel hypocritical not giving, especially on a week where I had money to give. I asked her how much.
“Whatever you find it in your heart to give, $5, $10.”
I internally winced. As I pulled out my wallet and rifled through it, knowing full well I had a $1 and a $10. I didn’t show it to her as I rifled and tried to decide what to do next.
I barely make enough to cover my bills. And after I pay rent, there’s been a few times where I asked my dad, or mom, for $20 so I could make it until the next paycheck. Only a few weeks ago, I spent 10 days relying on my boyfriend for food because I didn’t have a consistent $5 in my bank account. In addition to not making enough income, my money management skills are hardly something to be proud of.
But I knew the rose the woman was holding cost more than a dollar and this week, I had money. So, I handed over the $10 feeling guilty as I parted ways with it. And in return, she handed me a rose died blue, before rushing away.

I wondered if I had been scammed. My thoughts about the woman weren’t kind. she reminded me of people I had known and disliked. But at the end of the day, wasn’t it better that I gave her something? The likelihood that I was being scammed, I reasoned, was slim and, even if I was, the woman obviously needed it.
I walked towards the overpriced grocery store, with less spring in my step, wondering if it was the sort of place that deserved my money.

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.

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.

Why homeless people?

Then another disconcerting thought came, ‘that could have been me.’

On my daily commute is a boy named Phillip. I used to see him at least once a week and had become accustomed to his speeches.
“My name is Phillip,” he’d start, “I am the most articulate autistic homeless person you will ever meet.”
Phillip strolled through subway carts talking about his grandmother who had recently died. He said she was his only family and now he was homeless. He was taking a class in something to do with computers. He was 19. He always stressed that he wasn’t looking to bother anyone. He said he understood that everyone has their struggles. He always asked for water or something to drink.
When I first saw Phillip, I remember him being fresh-faced and clean. His clothes weren’t tattered. He was thin but respectable appearing and he spoke so eloquently that he always got something even if it was just water.
At the beginning of the speeches, my fellow train riders were apathetic, then there’d be a pause and someone, usually a young woman, would offer something to Phillip and he’d say, “God bless you.”
Once one person donated, more started to.
I, however, kept my eyes downcast feeling guilty.
In about October, after three months of having Phillip as a welcome staple on my daily commute. I saw him again. He was far away, and I didn’t get a good look at him, but his voice had lost some of its zealousness. He sounded dejected and as he made his way up and down the aisle, his body swayed. When nobody gave anything to him, he went onto to the next subway cart. I was worried about him. I wondered if he’d be able to survive.
Phillip begged someone to just look at him. He said he felt worthless and lowly.
He stated that he said his name because it made him feel like a person. It felt good, he said, when people remembered his name because it felt like they knew him.
When I first saw him, Phillip was a refreshing break from the hopelessness most of New York’s street people projected. Phillip was smart, young. Somebody would help him, I felt, and he’d go on to be an inspiring tale. He had hope. He had grit.
As he left this time though, I thought, ‘he’s going to die.’
I’ve only had that thought once before. It was before I moved to the city. I was visiting with my boyfriend to scout out rooms to rent.
About 20 minutes after arriving, we were sitting at one of those trendy Paneraesq cafes. I was eating a sandwich, when a girl, so beaten and bloody and bruised, walked into the café. I saw her out of the corner of my eye walking towards us. She was swaying and unbearably thin. She came inside and asked some people near her for help. Then she must have seen me staring. She walked straight up to our table and I looked up into her face in horror.
Yellow and blue blotches covered her skin. I wondered how she had gotten like this. Was it drugs? Too much partying? Her hair was in side buns. I thought her clothes must have once been trendy, but now were in tatters. I wondered if she had been kidnapped and raped. I wondered if she was a prostitute. She asked for help, for money. And I didn’t know what to do. I stared at my boyfriend who was stuffing his face with food and wasn’t looking at her.
“No,” he answered in a way that made me think he must detest her. His voice was rarely ever so hard.
I, a woman, performed an apologetic no. “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything,” I lied. She wandered back out into the street and stumbled toward a cab.
“She’s going to die,” I said as I watched her leave. Should I have done something? Called someone? I wondered if anyone else was having the same thought. We should have helped her.
Then another disconcerting thought came, ‘that could have been me.’
After his dejected and unsuccessful ask in October, I didn’t see Phillip until a few weeks ago.
He looked different this time, he’d aged considerably. He wore sweat pants and a tattered grey hoodie. The pants had stains all over them.
He opened his speech with a story about his grandmother taking care of him after he broke his arm. Despite his appearance, he was still as eloquent as ever. Still, as he walked up and down the aisle no one gave. I was ecstatic to see that he was still alive. I had missed his presence. I didn’t have cash but Phillip, who was getting increasingly more desperate, asked for change and I fished as much as I could out of my wallet, a meager 45 cents. He passed my seat making his ask and didn’t see me. I remember him being hunched as he walked.
“Excuse me,” I started in a timid voice, then as he got further away. “Phillip, Phillip,” I pleaded. He turned toward me. Only one of his eyes looked at me, looked me over for the very first time. His other was swollen shut. Somebody must have hurt him, I thought.
“I have some change,” I offered timidly again.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for saying my name like you know me. It makes me feel like a real person.”
I was the only person who gave to Phillip in my cart. And it wasn’t enough. I haven’t seen him again.
I felt angry at myself for not helping Phillip earlier, for not doing more, for feeling so resistant to get involved. And I felt angry at everyone else like me who could help but chose not to.
When it comes to poverty, homelessness, inequality, forced depravity we are quick to turn away. Maybe we’re angry at those that show us the full spectrum of human experience. Maybe we feel helpless. We feel like our own resources are scarce and we cling on to what we have in hopes of never ending up like those less fortunate.
I don’t have any good answers for fixing homelessness. I don’t have much money to spare. I don’t understand the politics behind it. But I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I could help by making people like Phillip heard. I’m a journalist after all and aren’t we supposed to shine light on that which isn’t seen?
Below the margins is a site dedicated to people like Phillip. It’s not capital J journalism. It doesn’t pretend to be objective and I don’t have the resources to fact check these personal stories. On the site, you’ll only see first names to protect the subject’s identity. Though you’ll find much of my own perspective sprinkled throughout, I aim to understand and spread the stories as many homeless people as I can.
If you have any experiences or stories about the homeless feel free to email them to me through the submission form.