I’m walking down my Main Street in the Februar y dark, that greedy New England nighttime that will hog the last part of ever y winter afternoon. It’s five-thirty on a Wednesday and the air is cold and damp, and I am on my way to a shop they call Essentials to buy two dozen candles for a wrought iron chandelier I bought today.
I pass our resident steel drummer whose thin tin rhythm makes me think about long under wear. Then two doors down I see an old man, skinny, vacant eyed, sitting on the stoop of the art supply store where a box of crayons goes for fifteen dollars. Of course, I look at him, he’s on display. He wears an old man’s coat, he’s in an old man’s body. He is not buttoned properly, wears paper thin beige socks, big wing tip dress-up shoes, and there’s an orange f lorescent hunting cap before him on the sidewalk lying on its crown.
I think perhaps that he is waiting for the Bank of Boston clock to say it’s time to slow walk over to the First Congregational Church for the hot noodle, pork chop supper, and the army-cot, thin-blanket sleep.
But I’m not sure he’s homeless. I like these things defined. You do yourself. Here, there. Us, them. In, out. Helper, helpee. A nd if he has some other place to be–some home, for instance–well, let him go there, now. If he is only squatting down for these few frozen minutes to give his full attention to some demanding day dream, some night dream that has stolen across a poorly guarded border, well then I swing the nightstick in my mind, and say, Old man, be on your way.
I like to think he is possessed of choice, that it is volition stops him there. Because if not, if he is homeless, then I will be required to carry him away, inside my head, and worry while I deliberate between hand-dipped ecru candles and the factory-made stark white, whether he will still be sitting there.
I will be required to wonder how would I walk up to the heav y plate glass door of the First Church if I were he, and to imagine how I would fix my features, set my shoulders, as I walked in, all stiff and grateful. You are grateful for a warm room when you are cold, you are full of gratitude for a plate heaped up with meat and succotash and mashed potatoes when you’re really hungry.
But I see me, walking into that church sullen, and I would not be made comfortable. There is warmth and there is comfort, and they are not the same thing. No, I think if I were he, I would show up late, let them wonder if I’m coming in tonight at all. But I wouldn’t wait out here. I’d take myself inside to stand hidden in some narrow private aisle of Woolworth’s 5 & 10, in housewares, or maybe near the parakeets. Then I remember Woolworth’s is gone, the space now holds the Black Sheep, a store with wool and cotton, silk and leather all sewn up in simple sturdy patterns to look Spartan, necessary, and to cost the earth. No one who sleeps outside tonight will buy these clothes designed to keep a person warm and dry in any icy recreation. I sur vey the street, even the store names are prohibitive, the Earth Company, Stolen Moments, the Globe–too big for a man to fit inside and not be lost. La Scala, Don Nueller, Squor–too enigmatic. I try to choose one I would stand inside to thaw myself and maybe reconnoiter. I can’t.
I put the old man back out on the street, and know that I would sit there too, even if I tell myself I’d hang out at the librar y looking purposeful and foreign, pretending I had something to look up.
My friend, Julia, visits her cousin and his wife in Washington, D.C. They have a brownstone in a lovely neighborhood, and homeless people come and sit on their front steps, knock on their front door. Sometimes they knock at three a.m. and Julia’s cousin pushes money to them through the mail slot. What would you do?
What I do is walk by homeless people, and I buy myself more candles, decorate my decorations, and I sleep at home and not in stuffy church basements, and I write short fiction about homeless people who are wise and self-contained, and don’t say much. And in my street life I bump into frozen lumps and say, excuse me, pardon me, and give dollar bills to people I don’t say hello to, and write large checks and mail them off to national clearing houses of kindness.
It was in London in l973 where I saw my first homeless person camping in a door way. I stood there planted on the street, insisting we should telephone the police, demand they come and do something. A nd my husband said, ” The police already know he’s there. He lives there. You don’t understand.” And I didn’t, and I don’t.
Last spring we stayed in a hotel in New York City, a dump, my husband’s word, a dive, my own description. We had no choice, we were reser ved, expected there and nowhere else, and it was school vacation week. We stayed five days, and looking out streaked windows to the granite church steps down below I saw a woman make a bed of newspapers and shirts and go to sleep. I checked for her the first thing ever y morning, the last thing every night. But I could not carr y my idea of her and my disgruntlement at our accommodations in the same container.
This is about juxtaposition, about a homeless person wandering into a meeting of the town planning board, attracted by the warm yellow light, where applicants have come to make application to build new hundred thousand dollar family rooms, new kitchens, fourth baths. This is about collecting for the homeless shelters in my wealthy, pristine neighborhood, and being given two limp singles “because it is a worthy cause.”
These are vignettes I’m telling here, anecdotes I’m tossing in your paper cup like so much pocket change. But this is all a homelessness of my invention. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve never been there. I have not visited. I make the whole thing up and trade my stories over hors d’oeuvres, and I care and think it’s awful with my friends, and we don’t do a thing. A nd ever y night I go to sleep in a clean warm bed, and ever y night somebody new sleeps outside on the street.