Monday, September 15, 2008

Give me your tired, your poor

Something curious is happening in my neighborhood: the bums are coming back. When we first moved into this Bowery neighborhood 26 years ago, it was off the mental map for most of our friends. Even though it was obvious enough where it was—on a numbered street, crossed by a well-known avenue—none of our friends could quite place it until they had been here once. We loved that sense of isolation, of being off the beaten track. There was something surreal and serene about the garden we created on the deck in back and the air of quiet desolation of the ramshackle buildings in front.

Alkies festooned our stoop then. They were not very threatening—except when they tried to help me up the steps with the strollers or wanted to kiss the babies—and we were on familiar, friendly terms with several regulars in the half dozen shelters within a block or two of our house. Indeed "Mike the Bum" has been an almost parental figure to my kids, admonishing them to stay out of trouble and telling my daughter C's male friends that he will hurt them if they hurt her; one Christmas I received a silver roadrunner pin from J sold to him by Mike. "Crazy Curtis," who used to play coffee-can-lid Frisbee with great joyful balletic leaps into the street and made wonderful sculptures out of accretions of found objects like grocery carts and broomsticks and eventually had a gallery but was absolutely nuts, was the kind of sweetly eccentric uncle beloved by kids. One of my daughter C's great treasures is an octagonal hat box Curtis gave her from his trove of junk. And then there was the couple who lived in the recessed doorway of the abandoned building across the street and organized the entrance as neatly as if it were a tiny open-air studio apartment; we became somewhat chummy with them after we took them clothing and bedding and leftovers from our Thanksgiving dinner one year. I wish we had had the courage to invite them to the table.

It was difficult to know how to deal with the hordes of panhandlers. We didn't have much money in those days, but it was impossible to ignore the destitution around us. I finally developed a system of pocketing any change from purchases I made throughout the day and distributing that change until my pockets were empty. That meant I did not have to expose my wallet to view every time I gave out money, and it put a cap on the amount I distributed. Other was more generous. He gave away bills. Actually, I did too, but only to women.

There were tragic and macabre occurrences. Like the van that was abandoned one night outside our house. A disheveled woman soon took up residence in it. She had clearly seen better times: her roots were growing out, and her fingernails retained the vestiges of a professional manicure, and she wore business attire, albeit ragged and soiled. One day as we passed we noticed through the flung-open van doors that she was passed out atop a vast bed of bologna sandwiches—thousands of them. A day or so later, she and the van were towed away by the city.

Prostitutes plied their trade in the cars of the parking lot beyond our deck in the back—there were no uniformed attendants then—and we would hear howls of outrage when one got bilked or perhaps beaten. Our downstairs neighbor would sometimes charge over with a baseball bat to drive the misbehaving johns off. His rescues were not always welcomed by the women, and noisy brawls would erupt.

Then the crack epidemic hit. The sidewalk below our stoop was littered with tiny multicolored crack vials that would waft and eddy about our ankles as we walked through them. My son, then about 5, began collecting the different colors—according to lore, each color represented the wares of a different dealer. The crack whores turned tricks (for just $5 a go, we heard) in the doorways along our block. Occasionally we would pass an act in progress in broad daylight—bottoms bobbing in the shadows. The abandoned house where we'd fed the homeless couple a few years earlier became a stolen-goods depot, and there were continual fires. I often saw weapons on the street and was once followed home by a drug dealer with his knife drawn. I think I looked too nosy, and he wanted to scare me.

Then, suddenly, a few years ago, the crack dealers and crack whores vanished, replaced by celebrities and wealthy wannabes. And to longtime residents, they have been the most alien immigrants. Their decadent glamour, in-your-face cleavage, sidewalk-clogging smoking and cell-phoning, ostentatious overconsumption, party-hearty raucousness—we hate them. And it has been depressing to watch the neighborhood change to accommodate them—luxury highrises, fancy bistros, designer hotels, exclusive boutiques, fashion showrooms.

But in the past few months, I've been seeing an influx of the old demographic. And sad as I am to see people sleeping on the streets again, I welcome them too. I feel commonality with them. No matter how much money I make, no matter how comfortable my little apartment has become, I will never shake the feeling that I'm just one misfortune from the street myself, so I identify with these new neighbors.

And I'm wondering whether just maybe they'll drive out the rich, in a case of reverse gentrification (otherwise known as urban blight, I guess). Am I crazy to wish for that?

"Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Robin Amos Kahn said...

What a beautiful post, Mia. I agree with your feelings about reverse gentrification. Looks like it's happening.

Barbara Kriss said...

Such an evocative description--I was moved by your ability to find the humanity and individuality in the homeless people who inhabited your street over the years.

Seems like this reverse trend may be an early sign of an economy in free fall.