|Looking west across the Hudson River. 11 PM. Photo: JH.|
|Tuesday, January 11, 2011. Fair, cold and mild in New York. Lots of snow forecast for tomorrow. (1/11/11). I’m not a numerologist but there must be some significance to this date, no?
Last Friday’s Diary about the girl panhandling on Fifth Avenue (1.7.11) drew the greatest number of responses we’ve ever had in our ten years on the NYSD. We’re going to run a few of them here because of the variety of the responses, all of which are thought provoking.
Panhandling is nothing new in New York. When I first came here out of college in the 1960s, they were almost always alcoholic men in worn, wrinkled, dirt-stained clothing, scruffy, down and out. There was one man who often passed through my neighborhood (the East 80s) who despite his disheveled appearance, had a stentorian manner in his request for “two bits” (a quarter), positively elegant in expressing his thanks for a buck. This wit served him, as he was amusing.
It was generally assumed that most working the streets and avenues lived in the flophouses on the Bowery – which was, in those days, the bottom of the barrel, residence-wise. Only “bums” (which is what they were called) lived in (or on) the Bowery.
When I first came back to New York from California in the early 90s, and staying on Gracie Square with a friend, Carl Schurz Park had several full-time homeless residents – mainly men – who slept on the park benches year round.
There was only one woman – a very large, overweight woman with a sweet face and a lovely voice – who occupied, with several suitcases in tow, one particular bench just inside the park. She was always well-groomed. Her long dark brown hair was neatly worn up, and her long black dresses while not fresh, were spotless. When the cold weather and the snow came, by nightfall she would be bundled in blankets – although no umbrella – as if prepared for the frequent storms, always sitting up in that one place, surrounded by her bags of belongings.
Although I never had a conversation with her, I could see some women in the neighborhood had made her acquaintance and seemed to know a great deal about her. They would bring her food, especially soups and sandwiches, and some even hired her to housesit and care for their pets when they traveled.
I learned that although she was homeless, she had a bank account and a post office box, and frequently sent out resumes searching for a job (what kind, I don’t know). During the Giuliani Administration, however, the parks were swept of these people, including, eventually, the lady in black.
One cold rainy early evening in the late autumn just before another winter was setting in, I happened to be walking by a building that was being renovated into a private townhouse on East 84th Street in which the front door had not yet been installed. I stopped to look at the opening, amazed that the contractors hadn’t closed off the space for the night. Just inside at the top of some stairs, in what would be the entry way, there was enough light from the street to make out the outline of a massive figure, sitting silently and still in the dark, like a haunting. It was the lady from the park. When I walked by a couple of weeks later, at the same time of evening, the entrance had been covered with a makeshift door. She obviously had been evicted from her shelter, and I never saw her again.
Although I often (but not always) stop for people who are begging on the street, the young woman this past Friday caught my eye because of her two small Pomeranians seated on a bed of blankets by her side. It pains me to see animals (and children), total dependents, faced with the issue of caregivers who are homeless. When I stopped (after passing by and returning) to talk to the young woman I was mainly concerned about the animals and her assumed pregnancy. The dogs did look remarkably well-cared for and energetic. This is not true of all animals who are being held/used/possessed by those who take up residence on the pavement. Many animals often wear an expression of uncertainty and desperation that reflects their owners/master’s predicament.
When I spoke to the young woman – who had been until that moment immersed in a thick paperback, I noticed that she and her dogs were well covered for the winter’s cold. The quilted, weatherproof black coats on the dogs were expensive (and fashionable), as were the woman’s garments of hats, caps, scarves, sweaters and coat. Unlike many street people (and their animals), everything was neat and clean and obviously cared for. It was a relief to see, but the context was a puzzlement.
The emails we received after posting the Diary about them added to the mystery. Here is a sampling:
Then a different take:
And one last one to add to the puzzle: