The homeless were taking over.
It started a while back. One of those gradually and then suddenly thing. It was the 80's and The Prez seemed to think that mental illness wasn’t chronic. Like he could wax medical because he had played a doc in some B movie in the ‘50s. He claimed long term hospitalization was inhumane (A.K.A., pricey) and set everybody free. No plan beyond opening the gates. It wasn’t a problem until it was.
I guess, there have always been some folks living on the street. For a while it had even become, sort of, fashionable. In downtown/uptown galleries there were things constructed from match sticks or gum wrappers displayed on marble pedestals tagged, Outsider Art. Absurd given that standing apart from the crowd was the point for most artists. This trend combined with the fact that hipster outfits strolled up Columbus or down Prince made out of burlap, consciously disheveled and frayed ‘just so’ looking, for all the world, knocked off the guy huddled in a doorway.
Of course, you couldn’t actually say this out loud. The homeless thing was on a long list of politically incorrect subjects.
Truth was, I was a sort of envious in a perverse way.
Street life seemed the ultimate free-lance position. Way better than being an independent contractor (copywriter, like me) because, at the end of the day, there need not be a material end product. Street life was the end product. Street people said what they wanted, slept where they would, answered to no one. I’m not totally romanticizing it. There was plenty of injustice out there. Especially for females. The term, bag ladies, for example was discriminatory. These women were out there, same as the men, living their commitment to the environment, recycling. Anyway, point is, even though there were obvious drawbacks. I felt there was something to be said regarding the merits of career vagrancy.
There were other advantages. Living on the edge cuts down on the need for entertainment. There was the low over head to consider, of course and potential networking. Over all, bums represented an admirable philosophical construct, the kind we used to discuss at college when we should have been studying. Life on the street was existential. Simone and Jean Paul could have guzzled café au laits and debated ‘c'est ou ca’ ‘til the cows came home. But street people lived the life.
Sure, most street people got this way being down on their luck. You’re not born homeless, and if you were, the big ‘THEY’ stuck you someplace so awful the street seemed better. Once, most street folk had jobs, homes, families and lost them someplace. Maybe they served in the military, PTSD, Semper Fi, all that. But it maybe it was exciting not to know exactly what was going to happen every minute of the Filofaxed day. Granted, this also involved not knowing where your next meal was coming from, but every choice had a down side. And okay, many street people hadn’t actually chosen this path. Street life may have been thrust on them, a result of cruel circumstance. But, that was true for a lot of us.
But this wasn’t about bums in general. Just one particular bum. My bum.
Many neighborhoods had an artful panhandler on the corner who came back and back again to the same spot no matter how often the cops ousted them. That was his slice of the Big Apple, possession being nine tenths of the law or some shit. He or she had squatted on a four foot square, claimed it as their co-op, no board approval necessary. After a while, you stepped over that spot with the person in it as naturally as you might a pothole. This wasn’t good, just true.
The bum in question, my bum, was Angelo. Angelo might have been any age between 30 and 60. Outdoor life, sans sun block, had a tendency to age you. Angelo’s ethnicity wasn’t clear. Maybe he was Italian, Semitic, Hispanic, Iranian, Armenian, Asian, or all of the above. He stood about 6' 2", usually bare chested, pants hiked high, cinched tight featuring that paper bag waist that GQ advertised last spring. He tended to keep his chinos cropped mid-calf and traditionally sported a pair of wing tips without socks. His hair was sparse, grey at the crown, and he was often smiling as if someone just told him a good joke. Not many teeth though. He should have flossed more. Shouldn't we all?
Angelo spoke several bona fide languages at the same time mixed in with one that I was, pretty sure, he invented. Also, the man was incapable of modulating his voice. When passing him on the street he boomed: "Hey you gotta humedheda, por favor. carfulata the man okay?"
"Yeah, if you say so Angelo," I was liable to reply, waving. I had learned to decipher what Angelo said because the key to the code was this: Angelo wanted to be helpful. He liked to ward off any potential threat, for example, warn me if a non-neighborhood street person was heading my way, say. A few times he alerted me to a friend of mine coming down the street. His communiques tended to be salutary if somewhat stentorian. When not busy bellowing, Angelo divided his time between petting poodles or gophering coffee for the tethered doormen on the block. Sometimes he swept garages for the attendants too busy playing cards to bother with car shelter cleanliness. In short, Angelo made himself useful. He was the local Boo Radley, as omnipresent as a view of the river and just as liable to be overlooked on a daily basis.
One day my husband came home from his office life job and after he greeted our dog he kissed me and checked for signs of goat cheese in the Sub-Zero before asking, "Have you seen Angelo lately?"
Although I liked Angelo, he had not been upper most in my mind. He had always seemed a safe street person, but a street person, none-the-less, making me a bum bigot. This was not good.
"Angelo?" I repeated trying to think where I had seen him last.
"Yes, our bum, Angelo. Have you seen him? Because I haven't."
Clearly, I had been less than diligent. Did I misplace Angelo? Blame shifting, I thought ruefully that Angelo had neglected to inform me of his comings and goings. When next I spoke to Angelo, I must chastise him for not mentioning his whereabouts.
I said as much to my husband who frowned, "Maybe he moved to a new neighborhood."
"Why, what's wrong with our neighborhood?" I say back, offended.
It was at this moment that I glanced out the window at our street. It snowed a few days ago and the stuff had gone from white to grey/black piled high against the curb. Litter was blowing about, sticking to street ice. Cars were backed up for miles blaring their horns in a cacophony of motor vehicle expletives.
"Maybe the traffic got to him. How should I know?"
Having been through Transcendental Meditation in the 60's, E.S.T. and Freudian Analysis in the 70's, and now, firmly entrenched in aerobic classes and Responsibility Counseling, I put an arm around my husband's shoulder.
"Maybe he just needed a change of scene, some time off. He'll be back."
My husband looked dejected. "This isn’t good," he said shaking his head. "Vagabonds don't take vacas."
"Babe, drifters drift," I rejoined but my husband just closed his eyes, breathed deeply. He knew when he was being comforted and condescended to because he has been through all that self-care junk too. Luckily, it is past 7 o'clock and time to order Chinese. Soon we were up to our ears in Moo shu, steamed dumplings, and cold noodles with spicy sauce.
* * *
The next day I was setting out to walk the dog when my doorman stopped me. "Hey, Ms. G. do me a favor? Bring me back a cuppa...light?"
"Sure," I said, then remembering the conversation with my husband the night before add, "By the way, have you seen Angelo lately?"
"No I haven't and I don't mind tellin’ ya I miss the crazy old coot. Worried too. Cold out there."
At that moment someone entered the building letting a door full of January air in with them. Angelo had a tendency to forgo outerwear and, for all I know, underwear as well. Not good. I set off with my dog, Chumly.
Chumly looked to be a cross between a teddy bear and a terrier. It was not uncommon for strangers to stop us, cop a feel of his wooly head. But not bums. Bums were not dog enthusiasts as a rule. Angelo had been the exception.
Angelo often bent over and scratched Chumly's furry neck. The pair always carried on a lively, if loud, conversation. Angelo shouted phrases like, "Gooobog yea, yea,yea...", while Chumly's tail ticked back and forth like a fuzzy metronome. Chumly seemed to understand Angelo perfectly. So when I turn to Chumly and said, "Let's look for Angelo," he agreed.
I looked into every alley, cubbie hole, and nook within a ten block radius. I checked with our block's Korean green grocer who shook his head. Likewise the Asian nail salon lady and the Chinese Noodle shop owner. They all said, "No. I not see Angelo. Where he go?"
Even Bob and Bob, the city wise garage attendants shook their collective heads, look puzzled. "Yeah, where he at?"
I stopped to ask all surrounding Irish, Indian, Hispanic doormen, Pakistani cab driver, young/hip/fit bike messenger, Italian pizza delivery guy, Gypsy palm reader, Russian dry cleaner, Armenian hot dog/pretzel/hot chestnut/sugar coated peanut vendor, and would-be-actor/dog walker in the vicinity. Everyone on the street uttered the same sentiment. "Yeah...where was Angelo?"
Definitely not good.
It was at this point that I considered calling the police. But what would I say? 'Officer, I'd like to report a missing bum.' It just wouldn’t fly. Contacting local hospitals would be futile as well knowing Angelo only as, Angelo. I was not, after all, his next of kin.
Finally, I stopped at a phone booth, looked up the number for the Salvation Army, told the tale. They we’re real nice but pretty busy over there. This city numbers a lot of Angelos. The upshot was that Angelo wasn’t even listed in their registry. I ended up pledging fifty dollars.
My last stop was at Sarge's. The Jewish deli guy offered me the traditional shrug to my question about Angelo. I headed home with the coffee for my doorman and a bagel with a schmear for me in a brown bag.
I handed the doorman his coffee out of the bag. He thanked me nicely enough, but asked what took so long to walk the dog.
"I was looking for Angelo," I said using my hand with the bag of bagel in it to point outside.
My doorman ripped a hole in the plastic lid of the cup, took a sip. "The super just told me that he heard that Angelo froze up from sleeping outside three days ago."
My doorman looked away from me, drank his coffee. I stumbled over to the elevator, pushed the button, waited for the car to take me up. I don’t remember putting the keys in any of the four locks. Instead I collapsed on our Ethiopian tribal rug still wearing my coat and wet boots, dropped the small brown bag, Chumly sniffing at the bagel inside.
* * *
6:30. I’d been waiting to tell my husband all day. I hadn’t had the heart or nerve to call him at work. As soon as I heard the door I started towards it, faced him. "I found out what happened to Angelo."
There was a pause. "Did he move?"
"He froze a few days ago. Exposure, hypothermia."
"Oh," he said quietly, then added, "let me get inside. Get my coat off."
That was the thing about having a home. When something bad happened, you have someplace to go to take your coat off and stay warm.
That night my husband, Chumly, and I sat in our apartment starring at the floor. We did not talk. We did not order in food. It was Thursday, night of good shows. If we missed stuff, we missed stuff. Tonight we didn’t do anything.
* * *
They say time heals. Whoever 'they' is also says that life goes on and I guess it was true.
Revoltingly soon after hearing this news our lives resumed a normal course. I free-lanced, walked Chumly, bought brie, ordered in food or cooked blackened redfish which had become passe but I just didn't seem to care anymore. Winter became spring and spring turned into summer. Which is what happens if you are not paying attention or even if you are.
One particularly blistering day I was taking Chumly for a walk. It was so hot that the street melted, actually gooey as fudge sauce, heat rising from the pavement in wavy lines. Hot town, summer in the city.
Okay, I was feeling sorry for myself. I was probably the only person who has ever leased a Volvo left amongst the skyscrapers. Everyone else had long since, and wisely, abandoned the place for more bucolic settings. The only people remaining this side of the Hudson were tourists, bums, and me.
Stepping over an unusually sticky patch of sweltered roadway, watching my feet to make sure I didn’t stick, I looked down into a familiar toothless face.
"Angelo!" I screamed for once equaling his acoustical level. "How are you? Where have you been? We heard...we were so worried!"
The truth was that this was the longest sentence that I had ever uttered to Angelo which was not good, when you stopped to consider. But Angelo did not seem to mind or even notice. He just smiled, scratched Chumly's head.
After a bit of this, he pulled himself up, ambled on, arms dangling at his sides, and bellowed something incomprehensible at someone across the street. I watched him go off and thought, hey, this is good. God was in his heaven and all was right with the universe once again.
Well, to some extent, anyway.