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.

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.