A Christmas Tale: Down and Out in New York City, 1988

The following feature was written for Canada’s now-defunct Graffiti magazine in 1988. At the time, I was living in the East Village and working as New York correspondent for Creem and Canada’s Graffiti magazine. Originally, the latter asked me to write a piece on New York’s critical homeless problem that had reached epidemic proportions and particularly afflicted my Alphabet City neighbourhood. The magazine trailered the piece as “a sleighride you’ll never forget” and added in the sub-headline “Graffiti asked New York correspondent Kris Needs to prepare a report on Christmas with the Manhattan homeless. Turns out he got more than he bargained for…”.

Reading this account now, I can barely believe I put myself in this highly dangerous situation; suffice to say for much longer than I say in the story. Also fairly unbelievable is the fact that, nearly thirty years later, these same bombed-out old buildings, or whatever’s been erected in those vacant lots, now go for millions of dollars. Still to come was Mayor Giuliani’s savage clean-up campaign of the nineties, the unfettered escalation of the gentrification I touch on in the story (and now Trump; back then a fairly ludicrous local tycoon). But as Lou Reed once sang, those were different times. 

This is my account of the New York City that, still more for the better than worse, was left behind. The question will always remain what happened to these people and the thousands like them.

Bonnie Natko homeless

Homeless by Bonnie Natko. Flickr Creative Commons.

Funny how a mind deals with a crisis. Here I am locked in a lower Manhattan jail cell with thirty-odd Times Square crackheads and street dealers, all staring at me with eyes hardened into diamonds of uncut hate. There’s little chance of strutting the sidewalks of freedom for at least another thirty hours and all I can do is hum the cell-door-and-piano opening bars of the Stones’ paean to English justice, ‘We Love You’.

I’m exhausted, hungry, cold, dirty and terrified, not to mention totally bemused and bewildered as to how I got here in the first place. On the other hand, I can take another approach and look at this as a new and alien experience. I’ve never been in jail before. Never felt the cold metal of handcuffs scrape the skin off my wrists. Never felt the disdainful shove of an unhappy New York cop or a prison vet’s icy glare. It certainly was an experience; the worst I’ve ever had and probably the worst I’ll ever have. 

Being banged up in the slammer is just one of many indelible memories stamped in my brain from the lost fortnight I spent trekking through New York’s twilight zones trying to grab the essence of what being homeless really means. Forget the usual patronising or slumming-it scenarios in the press that only scrape the surface. One bum sitting in a vacant lot trying to keep warm and saying he’s lost everything as another victim of the City’s heartless non-system for dealing with the poor is very sad and it’s right to feel anger and bellow for justice. But it’s not as cut-and-dried as that.

jonathan lopez freedom strip

Freedom Strip by Jonathan Lopez. Flickr Creative Commons.

The men and women who live on the streets have found themselves bandied about a lot recently as the smug, uncaring President Bush clucks promises all over the media in an attempt to win votes. The truth is, saying you’ll help a homeless drug addict won’t win many new voters ‘cause most of the population who have homes DON’T GIVE A SHIT! You only have to watch how the majority react to panhandlers. They certainly don’t want to see their tax dollars helping these daily pests. On top of that, most homeless people wouldn’t want bureaucracy’s idea of help anyway. The lawless homeless shelter situated on Third between Second and Bowery presents a new definition of hell. The inside of the big brown building is like a prison, but more dirty, crowded and smelly. It’s also a hotbed of crack and crime. This is the supposed local antidote to the homeless problem, but no wonder most homeless would rather brave the street and end up spilling back to the Bowery or elsewhere. Even that seems more like home.

 

Every one of those sad characters with dirty clothes and dying eyes must have once run around with a ball in the kind of park they now try and sleep in or had something of a shot at school, a job, a relationship or a home. Something must have happened somewhere down the line to turn them into one of Mayor Koch’s embarrassing statistics. I don’t have the space or time to fully go into all that but someone should. This is just an account of what was going on out there in a particular area of New York; the biggest city with the biggest problem. Originally, my story was going to be ‘Christmas With The Homeless’. That turned out to be a something of a silly notion because the response from everyone I spoke to was identical; it’ll be the same as any other day with no nice plans. Good or bad, lucky or unlucky, in or out of jail, freezing or just cold.

I spoke to a lot of homeless people from the East Village and Lower East Side and within just a few hours a distinct pattern emerged. Nearly everyone was involved with drugs; few seemed to be sat drinking these days. Without meaning to sound condescending they were often more well-spoken (and better company) than some of the mindless slobs you find swaggering down the streets on a weekend, beer in hand and trouble in mind. The stereotypical image of the crusty wino huddled against the fire, Thunderbird wine in hand, song croaking from cracked lips as a dark stain appears down his trouser-leg is not the majority. Many live in a kind of encampment in Tompkins Square Park, the neighbourhood’s biggest open space and therefore a magnet (Or did; there was a riot there recently as a cross-section of the community protested over a newly-introduced curfew and the cops waded in, many with badges covered and whacking anyone in sight).

jonathan lopez weight of the streets

Weight of the Streets by Jonathan Lopez. Flickr Creative Commons.

Let’s meet Joe, a homeless black man in his late 20s (although he will proudly tell you that the roofless shooting gallery on Second Street and Avenue B, reached by crawling under a distressed wire fence, is his “home”). Joe takes me on a tour. Things start to get rough once you go east past First Avenue to Avenue A, although the inevitable Yuppie-amoeba is pushing back the slum threshold so you sometimes see the unlikely sight of a smart-suited Young Professional strutting homewards through a barrage of dope offers and street sights. Avenue A used to be a dark, urban menace but is now only slightly more downscale than First. But pass Avenue A and things start to change. Buildings get shabbier, garbage more plentiful and the atmosphere tangibly more tense. Dealers shout the brand name of their heroin at you; “Dom Perignon”, “Drac Pac”, “New York City”, “Tru Value”, “Public Enemy” (Coke is more likely to be sold in one of the local stores or bodegas than the street. There’s a cab firm where you sit in the waiting room and shove a 20 dollar bill under the backroom door then wait for the dark brown packet to come out).

 

Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Alphabet City was still a far worse place than it is now. During my travels I was told often that I wouldn’t even have got as far as Avenue B without losing my money, possessions, possibly my pants and even my life. White people just didn’t go there unless they were mad, tough or desperate for drugs. With the dawn of the Yuppie, however, landlords have stopped torching their dumps to collect the insurance in favour of making the necessary repairs to meet minimal building regulations and charging many times the rent they were before. In the short term, these derelict buildings provide perfect sites for shooting galleries and the homeless to squat in but, after they’re renovated it’s now possible to pay $800 a month for a one-room apartment on Avenue C and be glad. The average local, who is often low-paid or on welfare, doesn’t stand a chance, often facing eviction unless they are lucky enough to have a rent-controlled apartment (The previous year I was fortunate enough to secure a place in the famous Poet’s Building on 12th and B that was still $200 a month. Downstairs lived Allen Ginsberg and upstairs avant-disco genius Arthur Russell).

Also, the last few years have seen an influx of cops into the area, until it reached a point just before the election when they seemed to outnumber civilians (Maximum drug arrest statistics look good for the government). But no number of cops will be able to stamp out the local dope trade. The sellers just got more clever and there are always ten more junkies ready to replace one jailed street vendor. They can get paid in drugs for a night’s work and not feel compelled to rob a Yuppie to feed the monkey clamouring on their scrawny shoulders.

kris_kolak NYC homeless

NYC Homeless by Kris Kolak. Flickr Creative Commons.

Anyway, back to Joe’s guided tour and we’re between A and B on Fourth Street, currently the hottest spot in the Alphabet for dealer-cop cat and mouse. On Tuesdays and Thursdays plainclothes undercover cops try to melt into the crowd; you can spot ‘em a mile away with their glowing booze-red faces nestling in overdone scruffy gear. Every other drug customer has skin like a whale’s underbelly.

 

Avenue B is narrower, shabbier and teaming with people; mainly Hispanic (the old residents) and young whites (the new). On the corner we pass grey-haired homeless blacks croaking through broken teeth; “Works! Sealed works!” These guys are another rung down the drug supermarket ladder, pushing stolen hypodermics at two or three bucks a pop to feed their habits. The sellers are always homeless and the needles come from pharmacies. They are usually clean and sealed, but sometimes desperation discounts forward thinking about the consequences of passing on a used set. AIDS has reared in recent years as a major threat that has already wiped out many addicts.

A few blocks along and we come to an abandoned building. Next to it is a vacant lot surrounded by wire. Joe and I pick our way through a jungle of old doors, rubble and garbage. We disturb a dirty old man stabbing his leg with a hypo. He doesn’t give us a second glance and goes back to his “surgery”. Long-time junkies run out of veins; usually it’s the arms that are first to go, then the legs. In two days I saw four people performing intricate surgery with the aid of a mirror – in their neck.

PROWinston Vargas Follow Homeless - NYC Subway system - 1992

Homeless – NYC by Winston Vargas

Finally, we come to a hole in the wall of the burnt-out building and scramble into the darkness beyond. Joe announces his presence to avoid causing panic, rather like a posh banquet. The sight that greets me is overwhelmingly memorable. A tiny space has been converted into a living-cum-bedroom of sorts. A plank set on some milk crates serves as a table and there’s a once-natty couch over in the corner that can be used as a bed. You can hear the rats foraging next door but it’s the life in this room that makes the scene so shockingly unforgettable.

 

About half a dozen serious-looking black and Hispanic men sit on crates around the table, all in various stages of preparing or taking heroin. A black girl crouches in the corner jabbing a needle into the grubby swathe of bandages around her ankle. This is Joe’s home. It is also this particular block’s shooting gallery. Open 24 hours a day. For two dollars handed to Joe you can get off. If you’re broke Joe will sometimes accept a wet cotton (filter the heroin’s been sucked up through) as payment. This is how Joe survives, subsidised by selling syringes.

Over the next week I make daily visits to the gallery, or “House” as it is properly known. I get to know the regulars and, despite being the only white person there, am accepted for several reasons. It’s a novelty having a weird-looking Englishman in a place like this (I basically sport Nick Cave-style hair and a long black leather coat). I also try and treat everyone like human beings. I sometimes haul one of them out of the horrors of dope sickness by slipping a few bucks into an empty pocket. The last qualification overrides anything.

Being homeless, unemployed and on drugs is a full-time occupation. Some of them have to raise 50 bucks or more each day to satisfy the monkey. Most make do on less and get by semi-sick. Actually getting off is usually beyond their means. They sell drugs, work or have individual hustles. It seems that only the more sinister characters I didn’t talk to get by on mugging. Joe seemed to be a much better person than any I’d met in the outside world. He is obviously well-educated, well versed in black culture and could easily have worked his way up the corporate ladder, given the desire or the right set of circumstances. He talks of once owning a Mustang, of college and a past marriage that resulted in children. He admits his drug habit was once twice as big and is not proud of what he did to support it. “I used to do bad things to get by,” he admits. “Now I’m older and I get by in different ways. I would never hurt anybody though.”

SALIM VIRJI SNOWFALL ON ALPHABET CITY

Snowfall on Alphabet City by Salim Virji. Flickr Creative Commons.

If ever things get hairy, maybe a House newcomer rankled by my white presence or sizing up my financial status, Joe would be there. And the well-ironed trousers hanging on a string above his head, next to his clean shirts, testify to one thing: pride.

 

The grand dame of Joe’s shooting gallery is a very old black woman who has lived for years amidst her huge mountain of old blankets and never shifts as she welcomes her daily deals on wheels. At the other end of the scale is Lucy, a beautiful Puerto Rican girl whose apartment I’ve been to with Joe. Initially I thought she was one of his co-workers but she soon turns out to be a hooker. Later someone tells me she’s really quite ill. With the right breaks once she could have been a model and got out of here.

Another person is Billy, a long-time veteran of the neighbourhood and its dope underbelly. He has a son in his mid-30s, has been wounded seven times (both in and out of the forces) and suffers terribly from a hernia. Fifty-five bucks would buy him a truss, but a stint as a heroin seller gave him a 15-bag-a-day habit that he’s trying to narrow down. It still takes him four bags (at ten bucks a throw) to get him up in the morning.

Most junkies have forgotten what it’s like to be actually high. This is a popular misconception; that the junkie just sits around all day nodding out. Most I meet just want to feel normal. And that’s the tragedy. You spend all that money just to feel like you did before you took dope. Being without is being in the hell described in John Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’. Hot and cold, aches and pains, terrible stomach cramps and every orifice gushing whatever it usually sends out. Plus awful anxiety, disorientation and the knowledge that just one little hypodermic syringe full of murky liquid will soothe all these symptoms and make them go away like a headache commercial.

There are methadone clinics. Weirdly, the one used by many downtown addicts is situated at Metropolitan hospital up in East Harlem. That’s another, very demeaning, world in itself as addicts initially believe they’ve found the magic cure, then get addicted to the substitute, or combine it with heroin with even worse consequences. This usually means they get thrown off the programme carrying even bigger habits.

Like I said, this feature was going to concern the homeless, but it seems that if the new generation (they do seem to get younger) is anything to go by, their problems are so inextricably linked with drugs that the problem will only become more insurmountable. So far, I’ve only mentioned heroin as the drug of choice among the homeless. That’s only because it was the one I most encountered. But the dreaded crack cocaine is there too; it seems in the really bad areas, such as the projects on Avenue D (they used to say the stood for Death). It’s still the worst thoroughfare; the end of the world lined with broken-tooth buildings where gangs from the projects roam at night.

Several seconds Follow Crazy corny lovely sky, East Village BY SEVERAL SECONDS

East Village by Several Seconds. Flickr Creative Commons

So how did I end up in jail? It was like this; I’m walking near the men’s shelter around eight one evening and two shady characters motion towards me from a dark doorway. Innocent ignorance usually works in situations like this but, before I know it, one’s in front of me and the other very close behind, aiming a swift kick at the back of my leg. Obviously they want money, which I have stashed, apart from some small bills. I decide the best course of action is to hand the small bills and give them to the pair with a sharp “It’s all I’ve got”. I then manage to whisk myself away from their immediate vicinity and make for Avenue B. Here, a Puerto Rican girl asks me for a cigarette and I hand over a Marlboro before deciding that maybe it’s best to call it a night.

 

Walking back to Avenue A I become aware of the police squad car slow-driving past. When I hit the avenue it does a U-turn and approaches on my side of the street. Obviously I consider reporting the mugging incident that could well have been a lot worse. As I stand rooted to the spot, the police car stops and one of the officers gets out and shines his flashlight in a nearby parked Checker cab, which he seems to find particularly interesting. Finally, he gets alongside me and there’s a sudden explosion of activity. The other office grabs me from behind. “OK, where’d you hide the drugs?” barks the first one, who seems like he’s been on the force a few years with his white hair and solid cop wrinkles. They then start going through my pockets, cigarette pack, shoes, socks and pants. I protest and try and describe what happened with the two assailants.

“English, huh?” says the second officer, obviously enjoying his work. “We’ll show ya how we do things in New York?” It turns out the two muggers were also known drug dealers. When the NYPD surveillance team on the roof saw me hand over the bills they assumed I was buying drugs. After several minutes of increasingly frustrated cops combing me from head to foot on the side of the street, suddenly two bags appear.

The nightmare begins.

For the next forty hours I’m subjected to indignities and procedures I’ve only seen on TV cop shows. First a booking-fingerprinting stint at the police station (up in the twenties so not the one off Avenue A immortalised in Kojak) then a stint in the cage. I’m chained to the other half dozen sorry catches from the evening’s patrol; all for various drug offences (no dealers except for one fourteen-year-old girl who had nothing on her but was seen in action by the roof squad).

The worst bit is the next twelve hours after we’re transported to Central Booking on Centre Street, the cramped bullpen where they record your case, search you again and prepare reports for the Judge. In the meantime, hardened veteran officers throw you into walls if you so much as ask to use the bathroom. I can’t believe this is happening! Sure, in retrospect it makes a great story as I’m right in the middle of hundreds of homeless people, who all ride the system like the veterans they are.
I try to talk to some but can’t help feeling truly miserable. I’m one of only two white faces and constantly get either threats or extortion attempts from the 42nd Street crack mob, who love to regale each other with the finer details of their arrest and exaggerated accounts of their past capers.

Torus Mastaz Homeless

Homeless by Torus Mastaz. Flickr Creative Commons

Sleep is impossible and food won’t happen until the next stage – being lodged at a chosen precinct while awaiting summons to the courthouse and, eventually, the Judge. The whole process usually takes two to three days, if everything runs smoothly. Next morning, I’m back on the chain gang, stuffed in the back of a cramped police van with double the number of people it should comfortably hold; a perennial problem, it seems in this vastly overcrowded old system.

We are taken to the precinct on 21st Street, where prisoners are locked two in a squalid, dirty cell. One bunk-bed and, unsurprisingly, I’m not the lucky one. I begin to appreciate things usually taken for granted, like pillows, blankets and food. Two cheese sandwiches were all we got the whole time and the CO seems to bask in his power as these were left in full view of fifty starving men for half an hour. At some point in the morning one of the officers does a deli run and I’m allowed the best Snickers bar I’ve ever had in my life.

Before that, it’s probably the longest night I’ve ever spent, although luckily my cell-mate is pleasant. The loud comparing-of-notes continues all through the night. These guys obviously consider incarceration an occupational hazard that goes with the turf. One had only been out eight hours before he was pulled in again! I must look green (or white) as hell but by now I’m sort of used to it. We’re all in the same boat, ultimately and at the mercy of the same harsh system.

When we move out next morning I know the end is in sight. After more endless time in the back of the cramped van, we’re at the court, which is the one always shown in the films and TV series. Another bull-pen, more shackles and shoving, orders and searches. Obviously it’s not supposed to be a pleasant experience and punishment begins on arrest. Finally, I get to relate my plight to an attorney, who says he’ll see what he can do.

The court room is such a clean contrast to the dingy, stinky places they shove the prisoners into. Once I’m called, things move amazingly fast. I don’t even hear the full words the Judge mutters to his colleague and the attorney but, basically, I’m not in any more trouble or marked for life. “Alright, you can go,” are the words I’ve been waiting to hear for 40 hours. Walking out into the sunshine onto the famous steps outside the court I relish the New York air and un-cuffed wrists for long seconds before descending on the nearest hot dog stand.

In retrospect, it was an experience I’ll never forget (but something my cell-mates go through as a matter-of-course). All part of being homeless, a dealer or just out at night on the streets of New York?

Doing this feature was an eye-opener in many ways. I don’t know what to say except that there is a big problem and something has to be done. But what, I just don’t know. And the worst thing is, everybody leaves the subject of New York City’s homeless just like that.

Kris Needs, 1988.