That Invisible Door Between Us and the Homeless


Clinton Park is located between 52nd and 54th streets in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Bounded by the West Side Highway and the Hudson River to the west and Eleventh Avenue to the east, the park is connected to the highway below by long steep stone stairways. At the main entrance on the corner of 52nd Street and Eleventh Avenue, a statue of a World War I foot soldier stands above words from the poem “In Flanders Fields. The poem was written in 1918 by John McCrae to commemorate the death of a friend and fellow soldier. McCrae was soon to follow.
 
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The soldier holds a bouquet of red poppies in his right hand and carries a rifle slung over his left shoulder. Near the statue a wedge of picnic tables and packing crates house people living in Clinton Park.

I wanted to know what it was like for homeless people living in communities on the street. Did they help one another? How did they survive? I spoke first with a young man, Kevin, sitting on a bench. He had been living in Central Park with his parents since he was a boy and told me his mother was “a crazy lady.” He  referred me to Nate, an older man who took pride in his home, two packing crates set up at the entrance to the park. Nate was a veteran, mildly disabled, easy to talk to, a leader. But when I asked him my questions, he referred me to a man they called Bones, or the Professor.

To reach Bone’s packing-crate home I had to walk around a large playing field, past a stone table designed for chess, in use as I went by for a crack exchange. There were bleachers on the far side of the Park and at the top an Asian man was sitting – he was called Japan. Bones and several other men had set up their sleeping quarters at the base of the bleachers. A blanket with a peephole covered the open side of Bone’s crate. A newspaper lay by the entrance.

Bones was a very private man who didn’t say much, but spoke with deep feeling. When I asked him how people survive on the street, he spoke for himself: “I hold on to my principles. You have to hold on to your principles.” Bones told me the community had been in the park for two years and the city had just given them two days to move out. This was to be their last day calling Clinton Park home.

Bones was deeply hurt that the city had not even let them know what was about to happen. Because he had been spokesperson for the group in the past, a reporter had come to tell him about the eviction.

Bones was a Vietnam veteran. “I fought with a passion for my country,” he said.

“And what happened then?” I asked.

“Nothing. Nobody cared.”

When I told Bones I might write something about life on the streets he said, “If you do, write something that will wake them up.” I’ve carried that request for 20 years.

When I returned to the main entrance of the park, planning to leave, a very angry man demanded to know what the fuck I was doing there. Once we began to talk he didn’t want to stop.

“This is George Arthur Brown Junior / Don’t have to knock him down / He’s already on the ground.”

He had a theatrical street act but was an angry fellow and came, I later heard, to an unpleasant end. George had an encampment of four or five crates set in a semi-rectangle – his concentration camp, he called  it. A woman was folding clothes on a table, preparing to pack up. Another woman, Shirley, was planting bulbs in the earth around the trees. I was moved by her tender care for this place they were leaving. George Arthur Brown was, I would guess, pimp and protector. He later proudly showed me where he had reserved space for two crates in the nearby 59th Street underpass where he would move after they left the park. Some sort of society had gotten organized in Clinton Park, with veterans guarding the front and rear. Now that was ending.”

I came back to see Bones when I could. We were age mates. His life story touched me, starting with his days as a high school track star in Savannah, his college year majoring in psychology in California, and then Vietnam. Later, a man with a wife, children, and a drinking problem. He liked the street better than the experiences he had in group living or in shelters after his marriage ended. He had friends he could count on and some sense of community. I asked Bones how he got his street name and he told me about being with some men as they grilled T-bone steaks over a barrel fire. Someone must have asked him what he wanted to be called and he replied, “anything you want but late for lunch.” And Bones became his name.

On one occasion I arrived when he was stretched out on a stone step of the stairway sleeping off a heavy drunk. His friend Roosevelt, quiet and loyal, sat a few steps away keeping watch.

Bones collected bottles from nightclubs, following an established route from the West Village to Harlem. He had a partner and they took turns at night keeping an eye on their stock. They never collected cans. There were tears in Bone’s eyes when he told me about the old people who came out of their apartments at night to collect the cans. Bottles were too heavy for them to carry. There was a bottle and can redemption center across from the park on Eleventh Avenue that helped keep some who were homeless or old alive. But given the scale of real human need, it was a place, quipped George Arthur Brown, to make phonations.

I asked Bones once what he would like to be doing in five years if he had his druthers. He said he’d like to be doing just what he was doing now, but with a van. I hear he’s back in Savannah and I’m glad. He didn’t want his daughters in New Jersey to know he lived on the street. His eyes were getting bad and he’d had to have a plate put in one leg after a cab hit him at night. His uncle was a building superintendent and offered him a place to sleep but Bones preferred the street. He had his privacy there.

Privacy on the street? How do you let someone know you’re coming for a visit? I arrived once to find Bones sitting on the stairs looking out at the river. I let him see that I was there and waited at a distance a very long time until he was ready to open that invisible door. This man who fought with a passion for his country.
 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
 
But we have broken faith with those who lived.

Paula Phipps was born in Boston; she has lived in Cambridge for many years. She is an educator: a teacher; preschool director; advocate for children and families; and a multiculturalist. She has been quietly active in movements for social justice and for peace; a mother, grandmother, and citizen of this beleaguered planet. Her current focus is preventing further climate disruption while preparing communities and children for extreme weather events.

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4 thoughts on “That Invisible Door Between Us and the Homeless

  1. JoAnne Simson

    This is touching and sad, Paula. Yet you explore the positive aspect of choice in the lives of those you’ve talked with, which few people consider.
    A Canadian writer friend, Julie Frayn, has two books out that explore the issue of homelessness in a very up-close and personal way. They both deal with younger protagonists; one is clearly a tragedy, the other is not. The books are: “Suicide City” and “It Isn’t Cheating if He’s Dead.”

  2. Lois Roelofs

    A poignant reminder of the disparities of wealth in our country. I was recently in a discussion about how by reading we can learn empathy for folks in situations differing from our own. Your writing does that.

  3. Charlene Neely

    Thank you for a very moving piece about those who are homeless. You have given them faces and names and they are no longer invisible. We have too many people who are in this situation for various reasons and the number is growing. A member of my family is in this situation several states away. It is worrying but he has good friends that check on him.
    Thank you again for pointing out their human-ness.

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