In 2014, I moved to New York with the goal of speaking to a couple of hundred locals. In 2011, I’d published an oral history of London, and hoped to do the same for this great city: describe the experience of living there in the words of its own people. This unfeasibly large task took up my weekdays.
One Sunday, after a year in New York, I learned of a free lunch served in the basement of a church on 16th Street and Sixth Avenue. Over the course of a typical Sunday afternoon, the kitchen staff of the Welcome Table served 1,300 hot meals to anyone who asked. Those who came to eat or work at the meal would gather on the pavement beyond the church’s gabled portico. The wealthier residents of the Flatiron District mostly crossed the street to avoid the crowd, but some rushed past holding fruit juices and yoga mats.
One Sunday I volunteered, and the following weekend I drifted back. I soon began to look forward to my Sunday mornings. My job, at the end of the lunch, was to stand by the gate and bid people goodbye. One day, the doorkeeper, Ralph, introduced me to someone. He gestured towards a man I’d noticed before, mostly because he walked bent over at the waist. Joe was a white guy with military-short hair, the skin on his hands a mottled combination of blue, pink and red – raw and blackened around the nails – and the back of his neck tanned chestnut, even in winter. He was so bent, I worried he might headbutt someone; he’d accidentally headbutted a bus shelter before.
When Joe sat down on a step and finally tilted back, his face emerged, and he surveyed the last of the lunchtime crowd with calm, grey eyes. At these moments, late in the afternoon, he liked to say he was “getting it”. “Oh, I’m getting it now,” he’d say with a smile as Ralph gently made fun of him for coming from Pennsylvania.
Joe’s nose was curved and much broken. He’d served as a marine in Vietnam, and many years later taken a blow to the head, which had brought on glaucoma and taken away his ability to read. Even sitting, he emanated both pain and fortitude.
Starting that Sunday, I would talk with Joe for an hour, sometimes two. Week after week we talked, and looked down at the pavement during lots of long pauses. His interest was less New York and more the wilderness I’d known growing up in British Columbia; he responded with his own tableaux of Pittsburgh, where he’d grown up, and the Allegheny River, and the forests where he’d once hunted. “I guess we’re both visitors to New York,” he said once, pronouncing the city with distaste.
One Sunday in May, a few months after we met, Joe and I walked around the corner to a coffee shop on Sixth Avenue. He squeezed his walking frame into the small space to the right of the door. Our talk soon turned to Joe’s time in Vietnam, as it often did. He was still a marine, he said, because being a marine is never in the past tense.
“There’s a piece of metal in my left leg,” he said. It lodged there when he was blown up by a mortar in 1969; he can still feel the edge. “And do you know what I do?” he asked me. “I pick at it. Can you believe that? Why would any normal person do that?”
I asked if he would go to the hospital. But he didn’t like the so-called care he’d received, the attitude. He had a problem with doctors, and nurses. And he had a problem with those who worked at reception, as well as traffic wardens, and police officers and security guards, which was why he was well known in his neighbourhood.
In the evening, when the traffic on Park Avenue started to abate, Joe would set up camp in the alcove in front of a tanning and waxing salon at Park and 23rd Street. A man who worked at a nearby hotel passed him whatever was left behind by guests. If Joe wasn’t careful, the police would question the provenance of these objects. Joe didn’t like being touched, and the cops often pushed on his shoulder and prodded his blanket at night.
When we were in the coffee shop he asked me: “Do you know what the first question is on the PTSD questionnaire? It’s, ‘Do you have a problem with authority?’”
The skin of Joe’s left forearm was a plasticised swirl where the mortar had hit and peeled the skin away. Sometimes we talked about the shrapnel still in his body – more than 20 pieces, he said – which would lead back to the subject of the war. Vietnam was not just inside him, but nearby, alongside. For Joe, the smell of gasoline brought forth Vietnam, as did the sound of a traffic helicopter. Once, a nearby car backfired and Joe threw himself down on to the pavement.
Standing at our usual spot on the corner of Sixth Avenue at 16th Street one warm evening after a parade down the avenue, we leaned on an NYPD police barricade. The staff at the Welcome Table were long gone, the gate was closed and the parade had passed.
“I wish you’d known me,” he said.
“I do know you.”
“You know remnants.”
It was time to go. I didn’t want to leave. I was lonely in New York, and I told Joe maybe we should do something else. I’d love it if he came with me around the corner to a bar. He didn’t drink, he said. Then maybe a restaurant? Joe couldn’t. He said he was waiting on a cheque. When I told him I didn’t care, he told me not to do this to him, so I relented.
up his bedding as well as the cardboard wall he used to block out the noise of the street.
“You know what?” he asked me. “Those people inside the tanning salon, they all call me different names. Sometimes it’s Mike. Sometimes it’s Dave.”
He went on: “People are always, always coming up to me. I’ll be sitting on my porch, getting set up, and people will always stop and say, ‘How are you, Joey?’ Or they’ll ask me, ‘Are you Joey?’ Craig, I don’t know these people. I’ve never seen them before. But they know me, somehow.”
He knew Park Avenue in a way few people did, just as he knew so much about New York. But, instead, he thought back to Pittsburgh, to the quicksilver waters of the flowing Allegheny when the mills were running.
When I asked him why he came to New York, he always gave a different answer. There were some subjects he wouldn’t discuss. I asked him one day about getting an NYC identity card. He said he didn’t want anything that would tie him down.
“New York isn’t a real place,” he said.
One freezing November evening, after I’d spent nearly a year of Sundays with Joe, I invited him back to my apartment. He refused, then accepted. When we got there, Joe sat down at the kitchen table. I cooked carrots and onions and stirred up chicken broth.
“Why did you come back to New York?” I asked him.
“I was a coward,” he said. His aunt was sick. Whenever he returned to Pittsburgh, she had been his welcoming presence, taking the place of his mother. New York wasn’t where he belonged.
“I committed New York-icide,” Joe said.
By January, a routine had formed. On Sundays, after the Welcome Table lunch, we took a cab back to my apartment, talking about possible eye appointments, or the benefits of getting rid of the glaucoma.
By now, I’d been with Joe many nights on his “verandah” at the entrance to the waxing centre. I’d seen him in the different seasons, wrapped from head to toe. I asked him about some of the sounds of the night.
“I guess I block them out,” he said. “I know when it’s four o’clock because delivery trucks start coming. That will wake me up. And once I’m up, I’m up. I’m not going back to bed.”
“Do you lay awake for a long time?”
“Sometimes two hours I’ll lay there.”
“Thinking about what?”
There was a pause.
“My situation,” Joe said. “I’m not being facetious or smart with you, but what else do you think I’d think about? My position. My fate, or lack of.”
I asked him what he heard people saying as they walked past. “You hear everything,” he said. Once he’d been lying there when someone said, “Is that even a person?”
He said he doesn’t like to make eye contact with people.
“Cause it’s embarrassing, Craig. Come on. Living on the streets? I’m not part of society … I don’t feel I should have to explain that to you.”
“You’re not outside of my society. You’re part of my life.”
“And I appreciate that, but, Craig, I’m not part of their lives. I’m just a part of New York. I’m a piece of paper on the street.”
We sat in silence for a moment. “I have people that want to sit down with me. I feel – in some way, even if it’s a woman – violated. Just because I’m on the street, doesn’t mean I’m a bum. She’s just gonna sit down on the edge of my bed? And once she’s down, she asks me, ‘Do I mind?’ What am I supposed to say? I don’t get smart with them or nothing. But then they give you the ‘I see you almost every night when I come home from work. My heart goes out to you.’ I get hardened to that. I used to believe that. Not any more. I tell them, thank you. I tell them what they wanna hear. Hopefully they’ll leave. I don’t want anybody to have that type of feeling for me.”
I told him I couldn’t help it, and he said: “I know, you think everybody’s like you.”
“Please, believe me,” he said. “Another thing that plays a big role in it is where I come from. People aren’t like this everywhere. Especially where I’m from. They’re decent people. Streets are clean.”
“You always describe Pittsburgh as being welcoming,” I said. “And what’s New York?”
“There’s no comparison,” he said. “It’s like another galaxy. Uncaring, cold, cruel.”
Gradually I acquired a Sunday roommate. Joe would stay overnight, returning to his porch on Park for the rest of the week. He started to keep more of his belongings at the apartment. I motioned towards the stack of his bags in the corner. It had grown larger. Each weekend it seemed Joe brought another bag, and I would say: “You’ve got to do something about those.”
Sometimes I felt great love for him. Once, when I stopped by when he was asleep, I saw his face given over to the cold. I’d crouched beside him that night, cramped and angry at my inability to force some sort of change. There were times I was protective. Then there were times he was like any friend, although more generous, always offering his latest gift. Did I need a stringy iPhone charger the colour of fresh spinach? Here was a map of downtown Helsinki. Would that come in handy? Here were some dress shirts – and they’re clean, Joe assured me, just a little wrinkled.
A few years later, my visa came up. I knew I’d have to leave New York. I’d met hundreds of people. Most had said their piece and continued with their lives. But I was implicated in the lives of others. Joe still came to stay with me most Sundays, and on one of them I asked him how it would feel to finally say goodbye to New York.
“Like a breath of air,” he said, “or unloading a pack.”
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