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A Report From the Bowery: The Boys in the Bottle

The stomach cramps hit at four in the morning, twisting Bubba out of his sleep. At age 27, Bubba needs a drink every two hours. It was his fourth Good Friday on the Bowery and as he lay in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel Bubba knew that he had slept too long. Unless he got a drink convulsions would soon follow the cramps. Bubba rolled onto the floor and groped for the quart of wine he had bought the night before. He took one taste and flung the bottle against the door. The bartender had sold him water.

Bubba stuffed a sock in his mouth to keep his tongue away from his chattering teeth and stumbled toward the lobby. Groans and cries from other cubicles echoed in the dark hallway. Bubba crossed the lobby to a six-foot window. He pulled the sock out of his mouth and wiped the soot off a few inches of the glass. Vinnie the bootlegger was across the street, in front of the Salvation Army mission. Every morning between 4 and 8, Vinnie stands on the Bowery and sells wine to men who need a drink to keep “well” until the bars open. Vinnie charges $1.25 a pint. Bubba only had 11 cents. He turned away from the window and walked toward the 11 men scattered among the rows of wooden seats that fill the lobby.

“I got 27 cents. Anybody want to go in for a pint'” Bubba asked. Nobody answered. The Social Security checks that support the old men had come eight days before. The catering businesses and temporary-labor companies that hire the younger men had been closed since the beginning of Passover. At 4 a.m., there are no cars or pedestrians on the street to panhandle.

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“This early on a holiday at this time of the month, you’re the richest man in the Prince,” an old bum at the back of the lobby said.

Rube walked into the room wearing a towel around his waist and carrying a paper bag. A pair of BVDs were tangled in the joint of his artificial leg.

“I told them this new leg was too compli­cated,” Rube said as he sat down. Bubba bent over and freed the underwear from the plastic limb.

“Here,” Rube said, pulling a pint of Jack Daniels out of the paper bag. “I owe you from the hospital.” Bubba and Rube had been in the detoxification ward at Bern­stein Institute together. During their first night on the ward, Bubba had produced a smuggled bottle of vodka.

“The nurses never would have found out if you hadn’t fallen out of your wheelchair,” Bubba said as he took a pull from the bottle. Bubba’s cramps subsided a half-pint later.

He borrowed a pencil and drew the outline of an airplane on a week-old copy of the Daily News. Five years ago, Bubba welded patches of titanium on Strategic Air Command bombers for a contractor at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Peri­odically, Air Force technicians checked the welds with an X-ray machine. In February of 1972, Bubba was summoned to his boss’s office. The first thing he noticed was a stack of X-ray film .

“I can take you missing three Mondays in a row,” Bubba remembers the boss saying. “But I can’t take the kind of work you’ve been doing. Look at these X-rays. If we’d let those welds go through, it’d be raining B-52s from here to California.” Bubba took a bus to New York the next day. He signed up for welfare and started drinking at uptown bars. He went for two weeks with­out a bath and was bounced by 23 separate uptown bartenders. It took the more tolerant Greenwich Village saloonkeepers six weeks to bar him. At the end of what he still calls “a record-breaking drunk,” Bubba was on the Bowery.

“It’s the lieutenant,” a man standing by the window shouted. Bubba and three other bums jumped from their seats and ran out to the street. A policeman was frisking Vinnie. The bums rummaged the pile of garbage in front of the mission and looted the bootlegger’s stash.

“Have a good Good Friday,” the policeman said over his shoulder as the bums crossed back to the Prince.

“We call that cop the lieutenant,” Bubba explained. “Whenever he busts a bootleg­ger, he gives the wine to the bums. He’s the only real Christian on the Bowery.” Over the next hour, Bubba killed two pints of wine. The Roadhouse bar opened at 8, and, when Bubba walked in at 8:05, Pete and Harold were already halfway through a quart of white port. Bubba shuffled through the quarter-inch of sawdust that covered the tile floor.

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“Have a drink on Medicaid,” Harold said, beckoning from the back of the saloon. Eight weeks ago, 24-year-old Harold had been a patient at an upstate mental hospital. As part of an economy drive the hospital classified him as “stable” and offered him $25 and a Medi­caid card if he would sign himself out. Since then, Harold and his 54-year-old partner, Pete, have been visiting hospitals and clinics throughout the city seeking prescriptions. On Thursday, the pair ob­tained scripts from St. Luke’s Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital, and Veterans Hospital for Elavil, Tuenol, and Valium. That night, they sold the pills on 14th Street for $200. Bubba elbowed his way past the 20 men standing at the bar and grabbed a glass.

Pete took a head of lettuce from under his overcoat and tossed it onto the table. A half hour later, Bubba reached out and squeezed the lettuce.

“It’s lettuce,” Pete said. “I told Harold that he was so smoked on pills that he couldn’t do anything. He told me that he could still buy a head of lettuce. Well, here it is.”

“Jesus,” Bubba said. “I’ve been sitting here all this time thinking that it was a hallucination.”

A fight erupted at the far corner of the bar.

“You’re too ugly to be in here,” Johnny, a former schoolteacher from White Plains, screamed at Liam. Liam’s face had been severely burned in a fire three years ago.

“And you can’t teach anybody anything,” Liam shouted, raising his fists. A one-eyed man named Arthur pushed the two men apart.

“That’s some crew,” Bubba said. “Johnny’s down here because he got caught playing with one of his students. Liam’s here because he got his face burned up and he thinks he’s too ugly to live with regular people. And Arthur, he lost his eye after it got infected by A-200.” A-200 is a delousing agent.

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Harold pulled three dollars out of his pocket and went to the bar for another quart. Red stumbled into the saloon, his bare feet bloodied by the glass that litters the Bowery sidewalks.

“She stoled my shoes,” Red mumbled as he collapsed into a chair. Red had met a 24-year-old woman from Puerto Rico the night before.

“I don’t have any place to stay,” the woman had said when the bar closed.

“I don’t either,” Red had answered.

“I don’t have any money,” the woman had said.

“Well, I sure don’t,” Red had said. “I’m just going over to the empty building and sleep under the stairwell.”

“Can I sleep with you?” the girl had asked. Red woke up without his shoes.

“I need something to calm my nerves,” Pete said. “I’m going to get some more pills.” He left the bar and walked three blocks to visit a doctor on Bleecker Street. The doctor’s “office” was equipped with a desk, a chair, a stack of Medicaid forms, and a prescription pad. He handed the doctor his Medicaid card. The doctor wrote down that he had just given Pete a complete physical, four X-rays, a blood test, a urine-sugar test, and a test for venereal disease.

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“I’ll take 300 Valium,” Pete said after signing the form. On the way back to the bar, Pete met Victor the Driver. Until last month, Victor visited the Bowery only once a week. Every Saturday, he parked his car in front of the Roadhouse and paid bums to fetch quarts of wine. Occasionally, he would invite Pete into the car to discuss women and skeet shooting. On the last Saturday in March, Victor climbed on top of his car and announced that he was holding an auction. A wino named Jumbo got the car for three bottles of port. Victor hasn’t left the Bow­ery since.

“You look tense,'” Pete said to Victor. “How about a few of these.” Pete poured 25 Valium into Victor’s cupped hands. He gobbled the pills and walked into the bar with blue chunks of Valium stuck to his beard and mustache.

“Am I good for credit?” Victor asked. The bartender pulled a thick blue ledger from under the bar and ran his finger down a long list of names. The men listed in the book have their Social Security and pension checks mailed to the saloon. On the first and third Wednesday of every month, the owner calls out the names on the checks. After the men endorse the checks, the owner deducts the bar bills and gives the men the remainder.

“Sorry, Victor,” the bartender said. “You already drank the next check.”

“I did not,” Victor said, pulling a crum­pled piece of paper out of his pocket. “I wrote down each wine and the schoolteacher over there added it up. I only drank $43. My check is for $87.”

“You got some kind of nerve, calling me a liar,” the bartender said, leaping the bar.

“You shouldn’t cheat people,” Victor said. The bartender pushed Victor to the floor and picked up a stool.

“Maybe this will settle the account,” he said, crashing one of the legs of the stool into Victor’s mouth. The bartender picked him up by the collar and shoved him out the door.

“You don’t see much of that,” Bubba said. “Everybody knows that these guys cheat. They always get an extra $40 or $50. But nobody says anything. Everybody down here’s got their hand in somebody else’s pocket. The only honest person I know is Betty. She used to own a bar down here. She wouldn’t steal a dime. She went bankrupt.” Bubba slugged back half a glass of wine and pointed to a gray-haired man and a burly youth sitting at a nearby table.

“Those two are supposed to be best friends,” Bubba said. “The old guy’s buy­ing the drinks for the young guy because he’s a fag. Three-quarters of the guys down here are fags. You don’t see a lot of women in here. So the old guy’s trying to pick the kid up. The kid is just taking the drinks and seeing if he’s going to have a chance to rob him.” The older man handed the youth a five-dollar bill and staggered over to the toilet. The youth went to the bar and returned with a bottle of wine.

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“The kid isn’t going to give him any change,” Bubba said as the old man returned to the table. “He knows that the fella’s forgotten about it. Now, notice that the old man’s missing one of his socks? That means that he took the rest of the money out of his shoe when he was in the toilet and was too drunk to put his sock back on. The kid’ll see that and know that it’s time for him to make his move. The kid saw the old fella take the five out of his left jacket pocket. You can bet that’s where the money from the shoe is now.” The old man leaned forward and vomited on the floor. The youth patted him on the back with his left hand. Then his right hand flashed into the old man’s jacket pocket.

“That,” Bubba said, “is how Social Security benefits get to young people on the Bowery. The young down here live off the old. If the kid hadn’t gotten the money that way, he would have waited till night and then hit the guy in the head. The old-timers are scared all the time. A lot of these young kids get twisted on pills and like to hurt people. We call them jackrollers.”

A tall man in his twenties threw open the door and walked the length of the bar, asking for change.

“Take a walk,” Pete said to the man. “We don’t want you here.” The man glared at Pete and left.

“The guy’s a jackroller,” Pete said. “Something’s got to be done about him.” Something was. The jackroller was beaten to death later that night.

Pete and Harold drained their glasses and left. Ten-Day Red came in with two quarts and sat next to Bubba. Ten-Day owns a dairy farm in upstate New York. Once a year, he comes down to the Bowery with $2000, At the end of 10 days, he gets deloused at the municipal shelter for men on East Third Street and goes back home.

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“It’s only been four days, and I’m down to 90 cents,” Ten-Day said to Bubba. “I don’t know what happened to it.”

“It can get expensive living on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “We’ll drink these, and then we’ll panhandle.” Twenty min­utes later, they were in the middle of the Bowery, hitting cars for change.

“Please, young sir,” Bubba said to a man in a Corvette with a Queens College sticker.

“A nickel, a dime, or a quarter to help us get an Easter jug.” The driver shook his head and rolled up his window.

“Most young guys and all hippies are terrible,” Bubba said to Ten-Day. “The only people worse are the Chinese and the pimps.”

“Please, young lady,” Bubba said to a middle-aged woman in a battered Ford. “I am here with a smile to ask you to help us get an Easter jug. Just a dime with a smile, or a quarter with a frown.” The woman smiled and gave him 50 cents. He moved on to a couple in a Cadillac. The Cadillac’s electric locks clicked down. The driver brandished a sawed-off baseball bat. Bubba approached a truck driver.

“Wish I could get out and join you for a drink,” the trucker laughed, tossing a quarter.

“Unless you get them at the beginning or the end of the day, working people are the best,” Bubba told Ten-Day. “In the morn­ings and evenings they hate you because they’re going to or coming from work. Any other time, they understand a guy on the skid.”

Ten-Day walked up to two men in a Pontiac. The car changed lanes and roared away.

“You got it all wrong,” Bubba said. “Never walk up to a car with your hands in your pockets. And always smile. Other­wise, people get afraid.”

Ten-Day took his hands out of his pockets, put on a smile, and sauntered over to a Cadillac. The driver handed Ten-Day a penny.

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“Your generosity overwhelms me,” Ten-­Day said. The driver produced a .32 calibre automatic.

“Maybe this will overwhelm you, too,” the driver growled. Ten-Day ran back into the bar. Bubba came in an hour later. Red was sitting at a back table with Jimmy.

“I would have stayed out longer,” Bubba said, pouring $7.43 onto the table, “but the rag men came out. I don’t like them. I used to do the rag, but then I learned that people are going to give you what they’re going to give you, whether you wipe the windows or not. You taught me that, right Jimmy?” Jimmy raised his glass and smiled. Jimmy had been Bubba’s “professor” when he first hit the Bowery. He taught Bubba how to panhandle, avoid jackrollers, and frus­trate pickpockets. Jimmy can’t remember who his “professor” was. Jimmy has been on the Bowery for 39 years. Six other men drew chairs up to the table and helped drink Bubba’s change.

“I can’t hold onto money,” Bubba said. “A guy needs a drink, I got to buy him a drink.” At 3 p.m., Bubba went back to the street to panhandle. As he left, two of the bums at the table grabbed for the half-inch of wine in Bubba’s glass. The larger of the two men smashed a bottle into the other bum’s face. The smaller man fell to the floor, screaming.

“It never used to be this way,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “It just used to be regular bums. You had a bottle under your coat and you slept in hallways. Now you got the young guys and the pills. They go crazy, and they make everybody else crazy.”

Bubba made two dollars in half an hour. He quit when a policeman in a squad car handed him a dollar bill.

“The police are the most compassionate people on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “Now I got enough to pay in for the night.” On the way to the Prince Hotel, Bubba hit a woman pushing twin girls in a perambula­tor for a final 15 cents.

Bubba could hear the shouting from the entrance to the hotel. An elderly black man was standing at the chain-link door at the top of the stairs. A caseworker at the municipal shelter had told him that his “Muni Ticket” was good for any flophouse on the Bowery.

“Get lost, nigger,” the manager shouted at the black man, pointing to a cardboard placard taped to the wall. “The sign says ROOMS FULL.” Bubba walked up to the gate.

“Keep the nigger out,” the manager said as he buzzed Bubba in. Bubba slid $2.25 through the through the six-inch opening in the wall and brass bars surrounding the manager and grabbed his receipt.

“You must be new around here,” Bubba said as he walked past the black man. “Around here, ‘no rooms’ means no niggers and no spics.”

“You want some pink lady?” the black man said, offering a can of Sterno. “I only drank a little bit. Twenty cents.” Bubba he shook his head.

“You just get disgusted,” Bubba said to his friend, Robert, as he walked away from the hotel. “I’ve been to 20 detox centers. I keep trying to get out of here. But they dry you out and throw you back in. You’re like a dry sponge. You just soak up more wine.”

“Let’s go up to Al’s,” Robert said. “Willie’s across the street at the Providence. He’s got my coat and he’s sitting on $500.” Ten years ago, Willie had been an organist at Radio City Music Hall. He was fired when he started mixing Wagner, Beethoven, and white port. On his last day at the organ, he rolled up the rubber mat at the entrance to the theatre and carted it down to the Bowery. Willie’s favorite saloon still boasts the largest welcome mat of any gin mill in the city.

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Robert had gotten work through a temporary labor pool the previous Thursday hauling steel. As they passed Delancey Street, Robert ducked into a liquor store to cash a $20 labor paycheck.

“This is the only place you can cash the check,” Robert explained as he waited for the clerk. “You go to the labor pool and pay 10 per cent of what the job is. You want $20 a day, you give them two dollars. Then when you’re done, you got to come here. The labor-pool people own the liquor store. You got to buy something when you cash the check.” The man behind the counter took the check and handed Robert $14 and a four-ounce bottle of brandy.

“Tell Hanson that he’s behind a payment,” the clerk said. The clerk is also the local loan shark. Recently, a reporter a daily newspaper interviewed him for the workingman’s view of the Bowery.

“You wouldn’t believe all the rip-offs around here,” the clerk said.

“Tell Hanson that I’m going to twist his prick if he doesn’t cough,” he said as Robert pocketed the money.

Bubba was staggering by the time they reached Al’s. He didn’t touch the glass of wine an elderly homosexual poured for him. Bubba was sick. He did not need a drink. He needed food. Bubba had not eaten in four days. Brushing the silk lapels of his secondhand tuxedo, the homosexual prattled about silverware. Bubba fought to keep his head off the table and finally vomited thin stream of clear bile splashed onto floor.

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“You can’t do that in here,” Robert said, slamming his fist onto the table. “Go into the bathroom.”

Robert leaned back and explained his theory about the Bowery’s social strata. “Delancey Street is an invisible border. Bubba hangs out in the Roadhouse. You can do anything up there. You spit up on the floor here, you’re out. The Bowery’s divided into three social groups. You got the blacks up by Houston Street. Then you get the panhandlers and lunatics. Then, below Delancey, you got the minority of bums that work the labor companies and the caterers.”

“Out,” the bartender growled as Bubba returned from the bathroom. Bubba stumbled back up the Bowery. A block beyond Delancey, he ran into Rosemary. Last ­February, Rosemary had found him asleep in her hallway. Bubba had awakened with a pillow under his head. She gave him a glass of wine and told him that he could continue to sleep outside her door if he agreed to sweep the stairway. Then, in March, one of Bubba’s friends defecated in the hallway.

“It’s a holy day, and if you didn’t have such dirty friends, I would take you back,” Rosemary said. “You look bad, Bubba.”

“The Italians around here were always kind until the jackrollers and the wild ones started to come in,” Bubba said as he slid into a chair in the Roadhouse. The nausea passed, and, by nightfall, Bubba was drinking port again. By 8 o’clock, he was out panhandling.

“You don’t look like you belong on the Bowery,” a man in a station wagon said to Bubba.

“Why don’t you let us adopt you?” a woman sitting next to the man said.

“Not even for money,” Bubba said.

“At night, you get couples coming down,” he said as the car drove away. “You get gays. You get lonely women. They all want to pick up a young bum. They think they can just give him a shower and do whatever they want with him. One time a guy came back with brands on his ass.”

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By midnight, Bubba was in the Road­house with $11 in his pocket. Jimmy was standing on a chair with 16 hours of drinking behind him.

“I’m Mrs. Wallace’s boy, Jimmy,” he exulted. “And I’d rather drink wine here than be governor of Arkansas.”

“Shut up and sit down,” the bartender shouted.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I played marbles in Brooklyn?” Jimmy asked. The saloon closed at 2. Jimmy went up to the dormitory above the bar to sleep. Bubba and Big Bill went on to the Follies Saloon.

Sitting at a side table, Bubba watched the bartender shortchange the men who or­dered bottles and pick the pockets of the men who fell asleep. Big Bill shot pool for an hour and a half. He failed to sink a single ball. By 4, Bubba was lying in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel with a quart of wine under his cot, hallucinating B-52s.

He was sick again at 6. It took the entire quart of port to quiet the muscle spasms that gripped his chest, stomach, and legs. At 8, he was across the street at the Roadhouse. Jimmy came down from the dormitory.

“I was real scared,” Jimmy said. “I was lying up there and I ached in my arms and my legs and my stomach. I got to stop drinking. Yesterday was Good Friday and I’m going to die by Easter.”

Robert took Jimmy into the bathroom for a shave. “I had to use six blades,” Robert an­nounced as he came out of the bathroom. “But look what I did for Jimmy.”

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“Robert doesn’t care about Jimmy,” Bubba said to a newcomer. “He’s just always got to be the big brother. He’s always breaking up fights and settling arguments between old men. He’s got to be where he’s the strongest. Outside, he’d just be another weakling. Everybody’s got a fantasy that they let loose down here. And it’s hard not to fall into it and never come out.”

“I’m sick,” Jimmy moaned. “That Fri­day wasn’t so good.”

“I’m sick, too,” Bubba said. “I’m going to the holy mountain. They’ll let me in now. It’s been a year.” “Holy Mountain” is the detoxification camp at Graymoor, run by the Franciscans in Garrison, New York. Bubba had enrolled in the 21-day program a year ago. On his way through town to the camp, he spotted three saloons and a liquor store. The following morning, he stole a set of monk’s robes and stood outside the church that adjoins the camp, asking the local citizens for “alms for alcoholics.” He had $65 in his cup when the camp officials spotted him. Bubba was back on the Bow­ery the next day.

Bubba gave Jimmy a hug and left.

At 3:50 Saturday afternoon, Bubba boarded a train at Grand Central Station bound for Graymoor.

“The young and the old,” the bartender said back at the Roadhouse. “I’ve been down here 43 years. We always get a crop of new ones after a war. If there isn’t a war, what else is there for a lot of young fellas to do?” The bartender carried a case of eggs into the kitchen. On Easter morning, each bum at the Roadhouse receives a colored Easter egg and a glass of wine.

 

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FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Housing NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Once a Woman of Quality: Portrait of a Survivor

There was one painting that Nancy was hoping to find. And that was, as she described it, a small Watteau in which the painter had created a forest of gigantic trees, then placed in a clearing at their base a tiny man playing a violin. Her recollection of it was vivid, although it had been many years since she first saw it hanging here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So we circled the corridors of European masters, checking this canvas, then that one, like a pair of darting fish.

In doing so, we drew curious stares from other browsers who must have concluded that Nancy was an eccentric old aesthete with her niece in tow. Had she been alone, she might have elicited a more reproving scrutiny from the guards because her ap­pearance was odd, like that of a gnome from a New Yorker cartoon. She was bun­dled in a fake mouton coat tied with a maroon sash from some unrelated gar­ment. Pulled down around her ears was a peaked red wool cap and from under its edges extended an unruly haze of hair brindled from tinting. The sourness of her face, which bore a general disgruntled expression, was quite unintentional and de­rived from the mouth, which had sunk over toothless gums. She was shy and smiled infrequently. She also had a nervous habit of squinting, but when she was at ease those muscles relaxed, revealing a most remarkable pair of blue eyes. She was old, in her mid-sixties, but her cheekbones were still high and round, her skin still Celtic pink, hinting at some beauty that this strange ruined woman must have been.

Earlier she had listened while I told her of my own fondness for museums. Nothing changes there. While friends and lovers pass in and out of one’s life, the marbles and oils ensconced in the halls of a well­-endowed gallery are constant. She did not reply to that. So I felt a little embarrassed when at length we could not find the Wat­teau. (There is, I later learned, a canvas picturing a clown playing guitar in the forest, but it has been retired to storage.) Nancy took the disappointment with equanimity, as though finding it as it had been pinned in her memory was too much to expect. And in letting go of that she went on to cultivate new favorites, particu­larly Rodin’s bronze Adam, whose neck was arched in a most excruciating posture of guilt. Nancy loved Adam instantly and ardently. It is this quality in her that I most admire, the capacity for spontaneous pleasure. And I suspect that it has been the secret of her survival.

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That Nancy has survived at all, let alone with sensibilities intact, is amazing. That she has gone through some hell is clear, though the full scope of it is not. The details of her passage are blurred by her own imperfect recollection. Some episodes are quite solid, others smoke. Some, I suspect, she obscures intentionally be­cause she does not want me or anyone else to think she was a “bad woman.” From time to time throughout her 60-odd years, Nancy has lived on the streets of New York, in doorways and train stations. She has spent time in public and private shelters and she now lives on federal as­sistance in a charitable SRO on Times Square. It is a most precarious existence, since any change in her circumstance — a small increase in rent, a lost check — would send her back to the streets.

I met Nancy at a shelter called the Dwelling Place near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was there doing research on the homeless — more particularly look­ing for one old woman who had, I was told, studied music at Juilliard and still played classical piano. My intent, partly profes­sional and largely personal, was to discover how a woman with considerable gifts could end up on the streets. I never did find her. She did not exist or she had disappeared in the flux of women who wash in and out of the Dwelling Place.

The Dwelling, a five-story walk-up, is run by four Franciscan sisters whose char­ity is boundless and whose resources are limited to 14 beds for homeless women. About 12 more can sleep sitting up in the living room, if they prefer, and many do. Beyond that the sisters offer breakfast and dinner to anyone who needs a free meal. The Dwelling’s founder, a casual blue-­jeaned nun named Sister Nancy, helps them fill out forms for welfare.

The sisters’ facilities are nearly strained to bursting, particularly at the end of the month when government checks have run out. Then one sees in this tiny microcosm the entire range of homeless women. It is something one does not find in the city’s shelters, where paperwork bewilders and frightens the most disturbed women, who prefer to hide from society in corners of Penn Station. Those same women, how­ever, seem to gravitate naturally to the Dwelling Place, which keeps no records and allows them to rest undisturbed. They sit side by side: the filthy deranged who mutter lunatic monologues to the air and an assortment of more composed, de­pressed, and embarrassed women, some in their twenties or younger, who for some reason have found themselves needing a bed or a meal.

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The more ordinary the reason, natu­rally, the more unsettling. One heavy Ital­ian woman in her mid-thirties professed to be a schoolteacher who took her dinners here because she was having trouble making ends meet. She discussed Italian li­queurs with a strong-willed blonde woman in her early forties who said she had spent some time in Rome when she worked on a NATO base in southern Europe. She was receiving a welfare check now and her check had been interrupted. She occupied a bed at the Dwelling until she could untangle the red tape.

Sister Nancy pointed out to me the elegant old women whose careful grooming and alert kohl-rimmed eyes indicated they must at one time have been women of quality. They had lived in expensive old hotels and been pushed out by con­versions. Now, unable to accept the com­paratively shabby accommodations at the Times Square Motor Hotel, where the sis­ters try to place their chronic homeless, they will check into an expensive hotel and spend their entire Social Security checks during the first few days of the month. Then for the next few weeks they must check into shelters or sit up in stations, postures erect, trying to maintain the il­lusion that they are still ladies of quality waiting for a train.

What is strange is that these women in their helpless confusion can be so frighten­ing. One can’t approach them easily. The classic “bag ladies” hovering in doorways might prick the conscience, but they can be dismissed as the Other, species of subhumans who must somehow have brought about their own decline. When they are en repose at the Dwelling, they must be reckoned with like Ghosts of Christmas Future who presage something menacing — that one could end up just like them, elbows resting on oilcloth in the Franciscans’ kitchen. I am afraid of it. And in the weeks surrounding my visits to the Dwelling several well-fed, well-clothed, and safely housed women I know confided that they too fear ending up homeless and broken. It comes, I think, from a feeling that everything is ephemeral and that no matter how one tries to build a dike against chaos, everything — a good marriage, a bank account, friends — may be ripped away. That in the end, one is really entitled to nothing. It is probably a middle-class indulgence to ponder so excessive a ruin. During the Depression there were people who lost everything but did not lose their faculties and disintegrate on the streets. One psychiatrist who had studied the women at the Dwelling Place observed that many prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were stripped of everything and still managed to maintain their essential hu­manity. It is difficult to distill those quali­ties peculiar to survivors. But they exist in the complex person of Nancy Pomeroy.

Nancy came to the shelter in the spring of 1978 looking for a bed. After a time she was resettled in a cheap hotel room on Times Square. She now comes only for the free dinner, generally macaroni and peas or hash and eggs. It was after the paper plates had been cleared away one night that Nancy, whom I had not noticed, leaned across the table and said to me, “I’ve been admiring your beauty.” She went on to clarify that it was my hair, the angle it made at the jaw and the auburn color that she liked. Tendered as it was so matter-of-factly, the compliment was af­fecting. It was a rare overture in a milieu where I had been struggling to elicit revel­ations from women too damaged or embarr­assed to speak. So I turned to study Nancy Pomeroy. She wore an immaculate black tent dress with red and white daisies on it, neat nylons, and little black shoes with tassles. She was smoking a small Dutch Treat cigar. I asked her where she had come by this critical appreciation for color and line.

Nancy replied in precise declarations. She was not quick but deliberate. (She is a Libra, she explained, and Librans always aim for balance, although they might never achieve it.) Many years ago as a girl of 17 she had studied art, she said, at a place called the Grand Central Palace School. Her first semester they had given her a black portfolio with white paper and char­coal and set her to drawing figures of clas­sical statues. She had not realized that art might involve some tedium, and she grew bored with the white torsos. Had she stuck to it she would have moved on the next semester to oils, where the colors might have held her interest. But she dropped out after two months. She recounted this with some disgust and reviled herself as a dilettante. The outlines of Nancy’s past emerged gradually, from anecdotes drop­ped by her in conversation. She did not like to be questioned too closely. Later I found a few people who had known her family. Their memory of her was not dis­tinct but helped somewhat to flesh out her origins.

Nancy was born October 15. She will not divulge the year, but events she claims to have witnessed would place it around 1916. There is no birth certificate on rec­ord under her name. She was apparently adopted and grew up as an only child in the Queens suburb of Forest Hills Gardens. The Garden, as it is called, was a self­-consciously quaint community of English Tudor buildings modeled after the London suburb of Kew Gardens. Conceived origi­nally as an experiment to house blue-collar workers in comparative elegance, it was quickly taken over by writers, artists, and wealthy professionals. During the early part of the century it was a stronghold of Republicanism, where denizens were al­ways on guard against the twin evils of communism and flapperism. In the Gar­den a few old families comprised the aristocracy: Stowe, Marsh, Keller. The Pomeroys apparently were not part of the inner circle although the family was said to have had a good deal of money. One neigh­bor recalls them as “splashy.” Nancy’s father, who had been an officer in the war, returned to civilian life as a copywriter for an ad agency. Nancy recalls that when the war ended her father’s men gave him a silver tray with his name on it because, she said, they loved him so much. Neighbors said he died when Nancy was in her teens. Mrs. Pomeroy, who had a rough time ad­justing to widowhood, became a successful real estate agent. She and Nancy moved into one of the Tudor houses in a place called Pomander Walk.

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Nancy invokes the name of Forest Hills as though it were Eden. Before her fall from grace, she grew up there in comfort among “nice people.” She was, by her own account, a “passable” beauty with clear pale skin. One of her contemporaries, later the wife of the local Episcopal canon, re­calls that she and Nancy were in early grades together at what was known as the Little Red School House. They took danc­ing classes in the foyer of the Forest Hills Inn.

She was not an extrovert but was in­trigued by “glamour.” She admired the great screen stars of the era, chiefly Joan Crawford. Every Saturday she would come into Manhattan with her mother to shop at B. Altman and Lord and Taylor. Then after “luncheon” they would catch the vaudeville show at the Hippodrome. Shapely swimmers dove into a pool sunk in the center of the stage. It was all so lovely, she told her mother she wanted to become an actress. Mrs. Pomeroy said that was fine but it took discipline.

Nancy never understood discipline. She seems to have wandered through events as a sightseer, stopping now and then to focus upon some exquisite oddity. That was apparent in her recounting of a trip she took to Europe when she was 23. Mrs. Pomeroy, having apparently despaired of persuading her dreamy daughter to go to college, thought she might benefit from travel. Nancy had come into a small inheritance when one of her aunts in Massachusetts died. So Mrs. Pomeroy booked Nancy on a tour of Europe for young ladies escorted by two old dowagers. Europe itself was in the earliest throes of World War II, but the dowagers’ tour was a civilized affair con­sisting of playgoing and teas in London townhouses. Nancy allowed herself to be carried along, not much impressed by the ostensible highlights. The passion play in Oberammergau she found a tedious spec­tacle. All that stood out to her of Venice were the orange peels in the canals. The thing that excited her was a boat excursion on Lake Como in Northern Italy to the chateau of Carlotta, Empress of Mexico. In one of the upper rooms was a glorious orchid and chartreuse rug. She stood look­ing at it for as long as time allowed. It was the high point of her trip.

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She did regret never having made it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and that is how our excursion came about. I asked her if she had been to the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art and she said once, 10 years ago. (Nancy, I learned, had no accurate sense of time’s passage. She pegged every salient event at multiples of five years.) I asked her if she would like to go with me to the Metropolitan. The prospect of that excursion to the museum aroused con­siderable anxiety in her. She was eager to go, but impediments loomed in her imagi­nation. She did not have the “car fare.” That, I assured her, was no problem. I could take care of it. But that offer struck her as charity, and she was very proud. She insisted that she would pay me back when her check came in.

But the real barrier was less material. The Metropolitan, only a 20-minute ride by subway, must have seemed as distant and unapproachable as did Moscow to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Nancy is at­tached to her territory and apparently ven­tures infrequently beyond Times Square. She shops for sundries at the Walgreen in the Port Authority. She will browse through the bookstores in the terminal, Sister Nancy told me, putting art books on layaway. Sometimes, particularly at night, she will just sit in the terminal absorbing the scene and waiting for a “fiancé” to whom Nancy claims she is to be wed next year. No one seems to have seen this man, and Nancy herself confesses she does not know where he lives. At any rate, Times Square is Nancy’s world, and for her to venture beyond it took some courage.

On the day we had set for the excursion, I went to the Woodstock Hotel where Nancy now rents a room. The Woodstock, once an elegant old hotel with an ornate stone facade, had fallen to ruin and was inhabited by pimps and prostitutes until the mid-’70s when it was taken over by a private nonprofit charitable corporation called Project Find. It is one of the few remaining single-room occupancy hotels left in New York, and certainly one of the few where the elderly poor can find a room for $150 a month, the maximum their fed­eral entitlement checks allow them. But there is no place for the Woodstock or its fragile tenants in the grand development scheme of Times Square. It is, in Nancy’s words, “not much of a hotel.”

Nancy does not have a phone in her room so I could not ring up from the lobby. Curious at any rate about her accommodations, I took the elevator to her floor and knocked on her door. She opened it a crack and I could see nothing of the room, only that she was pale. She had an intestinal ailment. A friend had told her that it was probably because her room had been without heat for three days. Anyway, she could not get out and about.

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I asked her if there was anything I could get her. She said she would like some Kaopectate but that she had no money. So I went to Walgreen and bought Kaopectate, stopping on the way back to pick up black coffee with sugar and some hard rolls. Nancy seemed pleased with the coffee but said she would have to soak the rolls in water or they would hurt her gums. The following morning I went to see her again, and this time she was bundled up and ready to go. Her jaw was set and she was very quiet on the subway.

Once inside the museum, she needed a cigarette. I cringed at the thought of her smoke permeating the canvases of the Eng­lish masters before whom we happened to have parked ourselves. I was also embarrassed at the thought of being chastened by an unimposing female guard standing at one of the doorways. But I said nothing. Nancy shrewdly noted the guard, weighed the risks aloud, then decided the prospective pleasure was worth taking a chance on. She lit her Salem and drew a blissful puff before the guard moved in with an admonishment to snuff it. Nancy did so without resentment. I felt a little embarrassed at having been cowed by the authorities here, and figured that in this respect, at least, Nancy must have an ego made of rawhide.

Once she had relaxed, she was drawn naturally to certain pieces. Her observa­tions revealed a considerable amount of reading. She had read Hendrik Van Loon’s fictional biography of Rembrandt and a couple of “scholarly works” besides. She had bought books on Gothic architecture and antique glass, but a malicious couple who lived across the hall from her in some SRO long ago had broken into her room and thrown her books out the window. It was raining and the books lay wet and ruined in the alley below.

Beyond whatever eclectic expertise she had gleaned from books, she responded instinctually to various works. She sur­prised me, while gazing at human figures on the bas-reliefs of an Egyptian tomb, by observing that the sculptor had not learned to portray his subjects in profile. And that was true. The rows of rigid courtiers were cut with faces in profile, but their bodies were shown straight-on because artists of the time, Nancy explained, hadn’t learned to foreshorten the shoulder.

In the gallery above, she made a beeline for a marble sculpture of children lan­guishing around the feet of an old man whose face wore an expression of anguish. She discovered from reading the inscrip­tion at its base that the man was a Pisan Count named Ugolino who was imprisoned and left to starve with his sons and grand­sons. At learning this Nancy recoiled and muttered that she wished she had never seen it. Being hungry was an awful thing.

***

It was not until this Ugolino episode that Nancy had made such a visceral re­sponse to privation. She had alluded to living on the streets and mourned the loss of “good food” she had known as a child, but the dark side of her experience she considered a private and shameful thing and she kept it to herself. I could not really grasp the fact that this woman, who could be such a perceptive and enjoyable companion, might have lived without shelter and food. She had known something frightening, something that was not civ­ilized.

To my chagrin I had taken a voyeur’s peep at her unsettled interior the day be­fore. Nancy was in the bathroom down the hall taking the Kaopectate I brought her. And I, left alone in the hallway, pushed the door of her room open to take a look inside. What I saw frightened me so badly that I quickly shut the door. Nancy’s little room was awash with clutter. Shopping bags, newspapers, old magazines, old clothes covered everything. The bed was so laden with this monumental debris that it could not have been slept in for some time. There was no clear space on the floor where one could safely tread. When Nancy padded back down the hall, her lips chalky from the Kaopectate, she found me looking guilty and anxious outside her door. As she did not invite me in I could not ask her about the chaos. I was not, at any rate, eager to talk about it, as it seemed danger­ous.

One night about a week later I went up to Nancy’s room. I knocked and there was no answer, but the light was on and I heard a soft rustling of papers. I called her name but there was no response. I imagined her treading back and forth across the debris, doing what she called “involved thinking” and surrounded by dark memories.

It is not clear how Nancy first came to be beleaguered by the Crooks. They did not exist in Forest Hills, that’s for certain. But she holds them responsible for her fall from the Garden. From comments she dropped over successive encounters, I surmised that her descent was gradual. She did not get along well in grammar school because she never understood math. Her father assured her that she was “not stupid, just slow,” but she was so in­timidated by algebra and terrified by the thought of being left back that she drop­ped out of high school after her freshman year. Later she dropped out of art school and, abandoning notions of becoming an actress, she decided she wanted to become a singer. So she auditioned for a big band leader at one of the Manhattan hotels who told her that “with training” she could amount to something. He gave her a letter of introduction to a voice teacher, a bald­ing, brown-eyed man named Raul Querze (she took pains to spell his name for me) who had a studio at Carnegie Hall.

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Querze agreed to teach her at reason­able rates and Nancy, who had apparently determined to make it on her own, got a job in stenography at the McAlpin Hotel. She was embarrassed by this menial work. Throughout her studies with Querze she did not learn to read music and was plagued by terrible stage fright. After a year, she became ill. “Just an illness” — that’s all she will say about it. She had to enter a hospital. When she got out, the house on Pomander Walk had been sold. That sale was recorded in 1944, around the time, says a neighbor, that Mrs. Pomeroy, who had been suffering from a palsy, died.

Nancy does not believe her parents are dead. She concedes only that they were “sick.” As years went by, however, she came to believe that they had been kid­napped by ubiquitous scoundrels whom she called the Crooks. One of them, it turned out, was the man with whom she had lived for many years. She met him, she says, in the hospital. He was a rogue, a “nut,” whom she later came to “cordially despise.” But at the time she thought she loved him and she agreed to live with him because he said he wanted to marry her. He broke that promise and many others. She was so ashamed of living in sin that in corresponding with a friend, a Spanish woman living in Atlanta, she maintained the fiction that she was happily married.

He worked intermittently as a carpen­ter and sign painter. But when his asthma flared up, he was more often than not unemployed. She worked as a salesgirl in the basement of Macy’s, selling cheap net gowns. Then she sold jewelry at Korvettes and later designer dresses at an expensive boutique. But those jobs were apparently short-lived because she didn’t move fast enough. She was a very deliberate person. And her man was jealous of her working. He couldn’t control her, Nancy surmised, if she had money of her own.

They never had a proper home. They would check into a hotel, then be kicked out because he got into a fight with man­agement or because they couldn’t pay the rent. Then they would spend nights on the streets in doorways. Next morning they would get coffee at a restaurant and she would use the bathroom to discreetly wash herself in the sink. She was a very clean person. They were together for many years. Nancy says 10, it may have been longer. I asked her why she didn’t just leave and she said she tried. But some­times when you’re right in the middle of a situation the answers don’t seem so clear. She left him several times but always re­turned because she had no money except the dividends from a small trust fund her mother had set up for her. That was next to nothing, and being with him was all she knew.

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Her man became involved in increas­ingly nefarious dealings with some blacks in Harlem. Nancy professes not to know the nature of it, but it apparently had something to do with shaking down prostitutes. Then one night he abandoned her in Peon Station with only 10 cents to her name. She never saw him again, and al­though she had warned him to leave her parents alone, he joined the Crooks who had kidnapped them.

So in the spring of 1978 — she was in her early sixties — Nancy Pomeroy took up res­idence in Penn Station for three weeks, not as a festering grotesque rolled in rags on the restroom floor, but as one of those women of quality sitting up all night wait­ing for mythical trains. The dignity of these women often fools passersby. It isn’t apparent how many “normal” people mil­ling and sitting about the stations are ac­tually homeless until one studies the crowd. I went out one night to the termi­nals with the city’s pick-up van. One of the social workers said, “You can always tell by the shoes. They are run down because they always have to be on the move.” The police, of course, can spot them and prod them to move along. So not even a lady of quality can get a good night’s sleep. Just an hour here, two there. Pretty soon a narcotic confusion settles over the senses and even those whose personalities were whole begin behaving strangely. If this goes on long enough they lose their pride and slip into purgatory, retrieving bagels out of trash bins to survive.

Nancy had begun to slip into a stupor. The police harried her, one rapped her on the hand with his club, so she found a place near Madison Square Garden where she could hide and sleep uninterrupted. She was vulnerable to muggers; she has been robbed 14 times over the years, she says. She put aside her pride and began to beg — she never took money, she said, without promising to pay it back — and when she had enough she bought bagels and cream cheese. She had already begun to de­teriorate physically and life in the terminal hastened it. The clear skin she had been so proud of as a young woman became in­fected. It had become a problem sometime earlier when “the nut” had checked them into a room where the sink was clogged and there were no handles on the shower so she couldn’t bathe properly. In Penn Station she would go into the restroom at some early morning hour, pull her dress and slip off of her shoulders, and try to wash the sores that were ulcerating her arms and chest. But an attendant once threatened to call the police so she abandoned her toilette.

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It is difficult to imagine that there is no one from her privileged past upon whom Nancy could call. If there were relatives who had escaped the clutches of the Crooks, they were not in evidence. She had briefly checked in to the city shelter on Lafayette Street, but she became fright­ened when they proposed sending her to an adult home in Far Rockaway. As she was unmarried and had worked so erratically, she had no apparent claim to Social Secu­rity. The city sent her uptown to apply for SSI, a federal entitlement for the poor and unemployable, but she made a mistake on the forms and her benefits were delayed. She could most likely have prevailed upon the officers who held her small inheritance in trust at Citicorp Center to give her a loan on the dividends, but in her confusion she could not figure out how to get across town. She did not understand the protocol of dealing with banks and governments. The logistics of helping herself were too abstract.

Nancy cannot be coaxed to reflect on Penn Station except to say she thought she might go insane from the shame. Her de­cline was checked by a suggestion from one of the other “ladies” at the terminal that she might try the Dwelling Place. The nuns took her in and gave her a bed, and one Sister Liz, fearing that Nancy’s lesions might be scabies, undertook to supervise her bathing and massage her afflicted flesh with calomine lotion. The sainted Sister Liz eventually left for Bolivia to work with the lepers. But not before she got Nancy set up in cheap room of her own on Times Square with a small income of federal as­sistance and dividends that came to less than $300 a month.

The nuns continued to give her what help they could. And two years ago when a Hollywood casting director called the Dwelling Place looking for a street woman to work as an extra in a feature film, the sisters suggested Nancy, because they knew she could use the money. Fifty dollars. So she went to Soho one cold night, stood on a street corner before whirring cameras and pretended to be in love with a shabby middle-aged man smoking a cigar. I asked Nancy and the sisters the name of the film, but no one had bothered to find out. Shortly thereafter I was invited quite by chance to the screening of a silly romantic comedy called Soup for One. Nancy’s gnomish form appeared on the screen in a wordless sequence of short takes. Her name did not appear among the credits.

***

I invited Nancy to dinner at Stefanos, a basement restaurant with a deluxe diner menu several doors west of the Woodstock. She appeared in the lobby turned out in an amazingly chic maroon felt hat. Its brim dipped over one eye à la Garbo. I admired it enthusiastically and she seemed at once bashful and pleased. As a girl she had been a stylish dresser, she said. Back then she had had more money and more time. The parts of her arms and chest left exposed by the immaculate tent dress showed faint rosy scars of the now healed sores.

There was a chance, Nancy said, that her fiancé would join us at Stefanos. He was a psychologist, she said. They had known each other for about six years. So we took a booth that would admit at least one more and ordered seafood. I, red snap­per and Nancy, deep-fried scallops. She ate slowly, savoring the food with the same submissive bliss as she did the cigarette at the Metropolitan museum. We had white wine, which she sipped moderately. And for dessert she ordered ice cream, which she spooned into our respective coffees.

I noticed on the third finger of her left hand a jade band. She said it was a gift. From previous conversations I knew that “gifts” were not something given her, but rather tokens she had purchased for her kidnapped parents. She had an odd idea about sacrifice. In fact she once had a vision in which Christ appeared to her, his brow covered with a blue drape, and he whispered “sacrifice.” She had taken to buying and hoarding gifts — rings, per­fume, portable radios — to bestow on her parents when they were finally released. She felt guilty because of the money they had spent on her and she, after all, had wasted those opportunities.

Nancy was plagued by mischievous per­sons who masquerade as her mother or father. She once ran into one, it’s not clear which sex, in a coffee shop, and she was duped into paying for its meal before she realized the fraud. This obsession under­standably wreaks havoc upon her delicate circumstances, as her entire monthly in­come — dividends and government check­ — leaves her about $140 after rent. The nuns once tried to help Nancy manage her money but she declined. Sensible budget­ing didn’t accommodate her obsession with sacrifice.

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Nancy therefore spends most of every month with no money, bumming cigarettes and taking her meals at the Dwelling. There is an unfathomable gulf between having no money and one dollar, as Nancy herself revealed to me in a dispassionate recounting of what had happened before she found her present room at the Wood­stock. Late one afternoon she was thrown out of her room at the Times Square Motor Hotel for nonpayment of rent. She bought coffee in one restaurant, nursed it as long as she could, then bought hot chocolate in another and drank it until dawn.

As I could not imagine the prospect of being even without one dollar, the inequity of our positions was embarrassing. I gave her a bill I had in my purse. At first she demurred, saying she could not pay back, but I told her that it had been a good year for me. Perhaps next year I would be broke, and she would be on a streak and she could help me out. It was a feeble little fiction but if there was anything Nancy could understand it was the fluctuating nature of fortune.

During that meal at Stefanos, her fiancé did not materialize. We did not mention it. “Nancy,” I asked her, apropos of nothing. “How did you get to be so tough?” She was offended by “tough” and I had to amend it to “resilient.” “Well,” she replied in her deliberate way, “I went through hell but I loved beauty.”

When I asked Nancy to accompany me once more to the Metropolitan so that she could be photographed among the art, she agreed, seduced by the anticipation of see­ing her beloved bronze Adam. But Adam was no longer there. He had been taken off his mounting to be prepared for an imminent exhibit called “The Gates of Hell.” Not even marble and bronze stay constant. They go the way of the Watteau. ❖

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

A Trump Morsel

There’s a reason 81 percent of New York City voters marked their presidential ballot for anyone but Donald Trump in 2016 — we’d long ago tired of the Queens native’s Barnum-esque self-promotion, nasty business practices, and vicious demagoguery. The Voice’s indefatigable investigative reporter Wayne Barrett went after the duplicitous millionaire (later, low-end billionaire) early and often, but other reporters and photographers working for the paper also made it a point to call out The Donald on his hypocrisy and cruelty.

Case in point: In February of 1989, with the city’s glitziest elites still hungover from the excesses of the Reagan era, reporter Sarah Ferguson checked in with the homeless as they dined alfresco opposite Trump’s revamped Plaza Hotel. (By 1992, Trump was unable to meet his mortgage payments on the property and signed 49 percent of it over to his creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding.)

Ferguson’s reporting reminds us that Amazon isn’t the first overentitled entity to get undeserved tax breaks from the city. One homeless woman sums up the future president succinctly: “I think he’s a butthole,” she said, adding, “Trump’s always saying how he’d make a better mayor, isn’t he? Well, why doesn’t he do something?”

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

California Screamin’: Conservatives Slam Golden State on Immigration

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, heretofore content to mutter darkly about sanctuary cities on Fox News, last week announced he was bringing suit against California for its laws protecting unauthorized immigrants, attacking them as a form of “nullification” and “secession,” a strange insult coming from a proud states’ rights advocate and supporter of the Lost Cause’s last gasps.

Though conservatives are supposed to favor tough immigration laws, it’s not at all clear that they favor targeting immigrants as the Trump administration has with its family-sundering ICE troopers. But they may be OK with targeting California, for which conservatives have had a hate on for years.

The conservative habit of hating on Cali comes and goes. On the one hand, Berkeley has been a right-wing swear word since Reagan ran the state in the 1960s, and who can forget Jeane Kirkpatrick denouncing “the San Francisco Democrats” at the 1984 GOP Convention?

Conservatives did cool it during the disastrous reigns of Republican governors Pete Wilson and proto-Trump Arnold Schwarzenegger — but then Californians rebelled and kicked a lot of Republicans out of office, so conservatives’ rage returned to full boil, and they’ve taken to calling the place a “failed state.”

You might think that’s an unfair rap to hang on the largest economy in the nation (and the sixth largest in the world!), with famous natural and cultural beauties that are seen by tens of millions of tourists every year. But they’re committed to it nonetheless.

Even before Sessions’s announcement, the right-wing world had been churning out slurs like Jennifer Van Laar’s “California: Further Proof That Liberal Policies Ruin Everything They Touch” at RedState. Van Laar cited Kerry Jackson’s Los Angeles Times column calling “liberal California” the “poverty capital of America” — an example of the familiar right-wing trope in which the author pretends to care that some blue jurisdiction has, along with a robust business environment and general prosperity, a lot of poor people — a concern such writers never express about the wealth disparities in, say, Alabama.

The presence of poors, however, was just Van Laar’s MacGuffin for a jeremiad attacking the left coast for its “No-Strings-Attached Welfare,” “Land-use Regulations,” “Energy Regulation,” and — the greatest horror of all! — “Minimum Wage Hikes,” for which Van Laar claimed “the implications…are already known” to be negative without providing a citation, perhaps because she knew many sources say the opposite.

Conservatives also like to point out that homeless people, whom the larger California cities tolerate instead of trying to starve them to death, as redder jurisdictions do, aren’t able to maintain middle-class sanitary standards, leading to Fox News headlines like “‘National disgrace’: Community fights back as California overrun by homelessness, human waste, needles” and James Woods tweets like “People say to hell with #California, as if we deserve the needles-and-feces strewn streets gifted us by liberal #Democrats,” etc. You can imagine the effect of such reports on Republicans from Big Suburb, Missouri.

When Sessions threatened California, some conservatives directly endorsed his action. “Jeff Sessions Calls Out California’s Elected Leaders In A Take-No-Prisoners Speech,” wrote RedState. “Well, the federales have arrived!” cheered Rush Limbaugh, who interpreted Sessions’s announcement to mean, “We’re not asking you to violate whatever stupid liberal value set you’ve got. We’ll do it. But not if you get in the way, we’re gonna take you out.”

But in general, conservative rage was not directed so much toward the immigrants as at California for being so unapologetically liberal as to welcome Mexicans into its state.

“California Democrats Ready to War Again to Keep Their Slaves,” snarled iPatriot’s Dustin Koellhoffer. “The fools think they are America’s ‘economic engine’ when they have become America’s toilet.” Haw, guess he follows Fox News (or James Woods)! If Koellhoffer hasn’t won your heart with that, here he is on “the ‘brown people race’ [which] includes Mexicans, Hispanics, and Moslems who are all Caucasians, but who all want to destroy Christian America…an aptly named race because they are all as full of sh*t as the Democrats when it comes to truth, justice, and righteousness.” I’m amazed Trump hasn’t hired this guy.

Conservative Book Club ran a poll, “Should California Be Punished For Flouting Immigration Laws?” on a page featuring the California flag turned red with a hammer and sickle in the upper left corner.

Others just sat around the campfire and told their neighbors that they’d heard tell that Cal-i-for-ni-ay was a horrible place where no decent folk would want to live nohow.

At Townhall, Jeff Crouere claimed the state — I remind you, the economic powerhouse of the nation — was “an economic and cultural disaster” because it had “114,000 homeless people” (the state’s total population is 39.5 million), and “even a sizable portion of the film industry has moved from Hollywood to other states offering tax incentives and a better business climate,” a news flash from the 1990s.

Crouere’s other proof points were similarly relevant. Like many of the brethren, he dwelt at length on the undocumented immigrant who accidentally killed Kate Steinle, as if he were more representative of that population than, say, migrant workers or kitchen employees.

When U.S. News & World Report published a McKinsey ranking of states that put California at No. 32 overall and last for “quality of life” — a metric based, McKinsey said, on “natural environment” and “social environment,” by which standard No. 1 state was, get this, North Dakota — the brethren reacted with all the schadenfreude you’d expect.

A few conservative writers, perhaps worried that their readers might have actually been to California, took the trouble to put their complaints in the future or conditional tense. “While the economy is doing well at the current time, experts predict the recent uptick will not last because of high taxation rates and onerous regulations on businesses,” fudged Newsmax.

Former Republican congressman Allen West wrote, “Yes, California’s economy, as per the report, is still #4 in the Country, but for how long?” (Bonus West quote: “California is not just exporting raisins, walnuts, and wine. It is also exporting the failed philosophy of progressive socialism.”)

But most didn’t bother to qualify their remarks.

“One way to measure quality life is whether residents can even afford to have a roof over their heads, and by that standard, California is failing,” wrote Fox News, showing a picture of a woman living under a bridge.

“Liberalism Has Finally Gone Too Far in California…State’s Beyond Repair,” gibbered Conservative Tribune’s William Haupt III: “When they euphonize Prop 13 next election, this will be the holocaust of methodic genocide.… This will nail the coffin shut on the goose that laid the golden egg, as the few remaining entrepreneurs and tax-paying elites abandon California to escape the calamity of the liberal morgue…” etc.

“California has become a hellhole,” claimed Lynn Woolley of WB Daily. “Taxes are high. Los Angeles and other major cities are filled with homeless people who take bowel movements on public property that tourists are warned to avoid.”

One reason for all this misrepresentation is that it’s Trump time in the Republic, and all conservatives now follow the Leader in lying unashamedly about their enemies.

But I think there’s another reason why they beat up on California. Red states are notorious for immiserating their own citizens by blocking minimum wage hikes, demanding stingier Medicaid standards, making it easier for citizens to get killed with guns, etc.

It is fair to assume these right-wing governments expect their citizens to put up with this, not only because they are deranged by Republican hate- and fearmongering, but also because, being impoverished and insulated, these citizens have no experience of the different, less painful ways of life lived elsewhere, whether in Western Europe or in blue states here at home, and so know no better and have nothing with which to compare their treatment.

It may be that California’s obvious and well-publicized wealth and advancement is embarrassing to conservatives who want their voters to believe that the apex of human freedom and achievement is found in Fritters, Alabama, or Gopher Prairie, S.D. So they must tell their constituents that California is dirty, full of feces and Mexicans and in a state of collapse, and altogether a place they would hate to live.

Also, as Sessions’s suit shows, this administration is not shy about using its power, in immigration policy as well as in the environment and other areas, to make California more like the typical red state, thus making their portrayal come true.

 

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The Subway Homeless Rate Rises As More Unsheltered Go Underground

We’ve been hit with two incredibly significant statistics of Gotham income’s reality over the past few months. First, the homelessness levels in this city right now are that of the Great Depression. And second, half of New Yorkers live in or near poverty. Now that we’re settled into the situation here, let us move on.

City statistics show that the rate of homeless people sleeping on the subways rose by 13 percent this year – a steady increase underground that has unfortunately gone on for some time now. In 2005, the approximation was around 845; eight years later, that number is around 1,850. Above ground, the homeless population sleeping on the streets dropped by a mere 2 percent.

The shift has some reasoning to it. The subways are warm, they can bring you anywhere and a ride (for as long as you want, we suppose) only costs $2.50. It’s less sensical to sleep aboveground, where it can be colder at nights and constantly loud. And, on the subway, at least you have a proper seat.

Of course, by no means are we trying to justify these conditions. But, given the facts laid out in the beginning, we might have to start.

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The NYC Homeless Population Is at Its Highest Level Since the Great Depression

Remember when Mayor Bloomberg said a few weeks ago, “Nobody’s sleeping on the streets“? Well…

At that time, the Coalition of the Homeless furiously responded by telling reporters that there was “no accurate measurement of New York City’s unsheltered homeless population, and recent city surveys significantly underestimate the number of unsheltered homeless New Yorkers.” So, almost immediately, City Hall released a quick statement, arguing that its main vocalist had misquoted himself and meant to say that he was simply rounding down (… to zero).

And then, yesterday, this became news.

The Coalition for the Homeless released a report to the press, stating that the population of those living in shelters has topped 50,000 for the first time since Great Depression. The number is 50,135, on average, to be exact. And a little less than half of that number consists of children.

Unfortunately, as spectacular as that landmark seems, it shouldn’t come as much surprise.

This summer, we reported on the accelerating rate of New York City’s homeless population; a pace that left the city’s Department of Human Services dumbfounded, in a rush to open up additional shelters across the five boroughs. Then, the number was still hovering just below 50,000 — a figure that demonstrated an astounding 18 percent jump in only one year. FYI: this was seven months ago.

But, even then, the Bloomberg administration admitted that the enormous spike was its own fault: by scalping the Advantage program, which subsidized housing for those in shelters willing to work 20 hours a week, an alternative to the homeless population immediately disappeared at the end of 2011. Also, by law, the city must provide some sort of refuge for the homeless. So, with these two parallel actions, the shelters are filling up but no one’s leaving them.

This point was brought up by The Daily News yesterday: Homeless shelter applications are actually down but, once again, the city admitted the 50,000 mark can be attributed to a lack of government intervention. That might help explain the whole Great Depression thing — when City Hall is financially unable to provide an escape from the shelter, it’s only natural that this is going to happen.

At least our elected officials can admit that to themselves.

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Homeless Boot Recipient Shoeless Yet Again; Wants Pie (Read: Money)

Last week, America gushed over the generosity of an NYPD officer who bought a shoeless homeless man a pair of boots. Those boots are now MIA, and the homeless recipient is shoeless yet again — and looking for a “piece of the pie.”

The man was identified over the weekend as Jeffrey Hillman, formerly of South Plainfield, New Jersey. When he was spotted North of Times Square — about 30 blocks away from the Skechers store where Officer Larry DePrimo dropped $75 for a pair of boots — Hillman’s new boots were gone.

“Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money,” Hillman told the New York Times. “I could lose my life.”

“I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?” he continued. “This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie.”

Hillman has been in New York for 10 years, the majority of which he’s spent living on the streets. He’s a former military vet with two adult children. He hasn’t been in contact with them in about three years, he told the newspaper.

DePrimo, on the other hand, has asked for no “pie” for his selfless act — and all he’s received thus far is a set of NYPD cufflinks.

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Good Cop Story: NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo Drops $75 On Boots For Barefoot Homeless Man

Believe it or not, not all cops are racist, donut-eating thugs who want nothing more than to hassle innocent citizens. In fact, the vast majority are good people who put themselves in harm’s way to keep the rest of us safe.

The good ones, however, tend to get the least amount of ink. But NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo deserves a nod.

The photo above was snapped by a tourist from Arizona. It shows DePrimo giving boots and a pair of socks to a barefoot homeless man in Times Square on November 14.

The woman who took the photo, Jennifer Foster, says she was walking around Times Square when she saw the homeless man begging for change. She gives the following description of DePrimo’s generosity:

“Right when I was about to approach, one of your officers came up behind him. The officer said, ‘I
have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let’s put them
on and take care of you.’ The officer squatted down on the ground and
proceeded to put socks and the new boots on this man. The officer
expected NOTHING in return and did not know I was watching*. I have been
in law enforcement for 17 years. I was never so impressed in my life. I
did not get the officer’s name. It is important, I think, for all of us
to remember the real reason we are in this line of work. The reminder
this officer gave to our profession in his presentation of human
kindness has not been lost on myself or any of the Arizona law
enforcement officials with whom this story has been shared.”

Our thanks to the Fosters for their attention and appreciation, and especially to this officer, who remains anonymous.

According to DePrimo, the man told him he’d never had a pair of shoes before. So DePrimo went to a Skechers store on 42nd Street and dropped $75 on a pair of insulated winter boots and socks for the man.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” DePrimo tells Newsday.

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City Council to Mayor’s Administration: Stop Blaming Homelessness Epidemic on State Legislature and the Economy

At a committee meeting held yesterday, City Council members told the Department of Homeless Services to start coming up with better solutions, not temporary fixes and excuses, to combat the rapid rise of homelessness in the city.

“We’re in crisis mode, and if we don’t do something over the next 16 months, then we’re going to be left with a situation that’s going to be getting worse, not better — under a new administration,” Councilman Stephen Levin said at yesterday’s hearing.

“As much time as [the new administration is] going to take to figure out what to do, we’re going to be well over 50,000 people in New York City on any given night in the shelter system.”

The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness estimates that some 20,749 children will spend this Christmas housed in a shelter — a figure not seen since the Great Depression.

]

DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond said the city expects to build at least three new shelters by the end of this year to accommodate the soaring homeless population. Reports today indicate that there will likely be at least five new shelters built before the year is out.

The City Council, DHS, and policy experts agree that the state’s decision to end funding for the Advantage rental subsidy program in April 2011 has played a big role in the dramatic increase in homelessness. The program offered roughly 7,000 families up to two years of rental subsidies to help working individuals transition from the shelter to permanent housing.

“The state has imposed restrictions on how its own money can be used, and when it ended the advantage program, not only did it end financing for the advantage program, it further sealed the deal and showed their intention by putting in appropriation language that says that no state dollars, no state dollars, can be used to assist people in leaving shelter,” Diamond said.

Patrick Markee, senior analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, said in his testimony to the council that Diamond only told half of the story concerning state funding. He said that it’s also the city’s unwillingness to use some its own federal resources to fund a rental subsidy program, which has halted progress on reviving a version of the initiative.

“He was a little disingenuous in talking about the legislature,” Markee said. “I think the state has voiced, in both public and private, that New York City is the only locality in the state that essentially is not using any its own affordable-ousing resources to address the problem of homelessness.”

Diamond said DHS is largely using its funding to ensure that the growing homeless population will have shelters to stay in, and to provide services, such as job training and other resources, to help individuals and families get back on their feet.

“If you could tell me today that no new people would come into the shelter system, then we can take all the people in shelter and maybe use the money [for housing],” Diamond said. “As long as we have a continuing need for shelter, we can’t devote those resources to housing because there will be more people going into the shelter system.”

City Councilmen Brad Lander revealed his frustration with this game plan as he grilled Diamond during the commissioner’s testimony.

“Respectfully, I believe you’re putting your head in the sand about it,” Lander said. “To come in here and give us testimony about it that says ‘We’re trying harder to help those folks get jobs,’ in the face of these numbers, by doing a little better on all of the things we’ve done before, we need a new approach.”

To work around whatever issues the city’s administration and the state have in regards to permanent housing, the City Council asked the Internal Budget Office to analyze a plan that would bring a portion of homeless individuals into permanent housing units through the New York City Housing Authority. Such a plan would call for individuals living in shelters — who are also on NYCHA’s more than 125,000-person waitlist for public housing — to receive priority position.

The IBO found that if 5,000 people were able to get into public housing based on this system, the city would save more than $29 million on family shelters and $11 million in total public funding.

“I really think that we’re being given misinformation,” Lander said. “The efforts we have made to try to reach a sensible compromise to do something for these thousands of kids and families [are] being met with a stonewalling and head-in-the-sand attitude from the administration.”

With well more than 75,000 city residents living below the poverty line, several City Council members argued that helping individuals secure low-level retail, security, and health care jobs won’t help those living in shelters secure permanent housing — not when the median monthly rent costs for New York City apartments is at $1,129/month.

“There’s never going to be a time when there’s not significant financial issues with federal state and city governments,” Levin said. “From here on out, there are going to be significant issues. My question is, what’s the real game plan here?”