Even the most diehard “pull yourself together” type conservative wouldn’t like what happened to a homeless man I know yesterday. Sean is one of the saner and more articulate individuals who frequents the Catholic Worker and University Soup Kitchen on most days to eat. He’s that guy who makes you wonder “how the hell did this man end up homeless?”
Anyway…Sean was copping some z’s on the D train – recumbent and in repose – when at 8 AM as the train pulled into the West 4th station – a bunch of kids on their way to school maced him for sport. This I know to be true because Sean’s eyes were red and puffy…and he was carrying a bottle of distilled water an EMT had given him at the scene when he stumbled onto the platform screaming bloody murder.
Fucking with bums is nothing new. I harken back to my teens when suburban youth would travel to New York City to pour lighter fluid on Bowery bums and then light them up for fun! As dumb as I was at age 15, I can’t imagine pepper-spraying or lighting somebody on fire as a source of entertainment. WTF?!?!
Because Sean was in such poor condition both physically and emotionally, we let him in to dine after serving hours to dine at the volunteers’ table. It was the least we could do to make him feel human. During the meal, I found out what it’s really like to be homeless in New York.
For starters, finding a bathroom to heed nature’s call is a major issue. We use our commode at home or work. If an emergency arises, we can stop off at a restaurant and use their facility. But Sean can’t. He’s homeless; they won’t let him. So Sean often “goes” outside. Relieving himself in the street has actually landed Sean in the clink for indecent exposure.
Then there’s the additional problem of how to get some sleep. The subway calls but sometimes when Sean doesn’t have the fare, he’ll jump the turnstile. He’s been caught and arrested for that crime as well.
Hearing all this, I offered “well, at least there are a bunch of places where you can go eat free in the city.” Sean’s answer surprised me. “yeah, but they treat you like shit. It’s only here (The Catholic Worker) and the Meatloaf Kitchen where you guys are friendly. At all the other places the volunteers act like they don’t want to be there.” (Often “volunteers” are actually performing community service as a condition of work release or parole.) Consider all that and then add on a bunch of fucking kids spraying you down while you’re trying to get some sleep and there you have it: a bum’s life.
I don’t have the answers to any of this. I don’t know how Sean and too many people like them have descended to their societal stratum. But I do know one thing: I can go to the shelter/soup kitchen most mornings and announce “welcome to the Four Seasons” as I serve a homeless person vegetable soup in a tin bowl, a couple of pieces of bread, and a cup of hot coffee. Seems like the least I can do if I’m a compassionate human being at all.
And now a funny story to end this entry on an upbeat note. Sister Maureen, one of several grey-haired nuns who volunteer, was at the Worker yesterday operating incognito as usual. Nuns are no longer required to wear all that cumbersome garb 24/7. Next week the weather is going to change and we’ll be sweating through 90 degree + temperatures. Pursuant to that reality, I sidled up to the sister to warn her “it’s gonna be hot and humid next week. I expect to see you if full regalia!” To which she answered “sorry, Bill! I kicked the habit!” She got a smile and a high five for her contribution to Catholic humor. Volunteers at the Worker aren’t always that quick and snappy with a comeback. The sister impressed!