It was much harder than I ever thought it would be. I was willingly walking toward something I'd always made a point to avoid. I've always thought of myself as a very self-confident woman, but suddenly as I went to make my first contact, I became nervous -- so nervous in fact that my mouth went dry and I could feel myself shaking. I'm at the Trenton train station every day, but on that day, it felt like I was there for the first time. It felt like I had been transported to a dark and dangerous place. The instinct of fight or flight overwhelmed me, but I held my ground. Armed with a pad of paper and a pen, I waited for my first approach. It only took five minutes. It felt like hours.
He was a skinny half toothless man with a crew cut who couldn't have been more than 30-years-old. The thing that stood out most were the enormous puffy red bags under his eyes. He walked with his head pushed forward and the rest of his body following behind. He asked me if I had any spare change. I asked him if he was hungry. "No," he said, "I just need some money." I told him I couldn't help him. He thanked me and walked away.
I ran back to my car to try to stop hyperventilating.
Day one: utter failure.
I had made the decision not to give out any money. I didn't like where I thought my money would be going, and it didn't guarantee I'd get a peek into their lives. I hadn't really thought the project through. I wanted to talk to homeless people. I wanted to know how it was that they got to that point. How was it they didn't have a single person in the world they could call for help? What happened to them? What made them desperate enough that the street was the best place for them to be? It made me feel better if I bought them food and had a casual conversation with them over a meal. The idea was to offer them a meal at the McDonald's in the train station in exchange for sharing information about themselves.
Day two didn't go much better. There was a chubby white guy with a round belly and skinny legs who was asking everyone who passed him for exactly $1.25. Everyone, except me. It was odd. I kept trying to position myself where he could easily see me. Time after time, he asked people for exactly $1.25. Although I had vowed to myself not to offer any money, I thought that if he approached me, I would ask why he needed that exact amount and still offer him a meal at McDonald's. He continued to ask everyone around me for his $1.25, but he never did ask me. A few minutes later, a different man approached me and asked me if I was with a program. I finally concluded that I wasn't being approached because I was walking around with a pad of paper and a pen looking like some social worker trying to coax people into a shelter or some church program.
Day two: utter failure.
Day three I showed up with my laptop in a backpack slung over my shoulder and that's when I met Jimmy. Jimmy was a white guy who had chipped and crooked teeth, a trimmed haircut, mustache, and goatee, and was wearing clean shorts and a t-shirt. He was holding up a sign that I could hardly read but knew it said something about needing help and blessing God. I asked what he was looking for-a job, money, food. He said anything. When I offered him a meal at McDonald's he readily agreed, but when I told him it would be in exchange for telling me a little about himself, he was leery. He said he was "claustrophobic." I don't know if he knew the actual meaning of the word he was using, but it was apparent he was anxious about talking with me. I told him it was completely up to him. I think he saw that I was friendly and meant him no harm. He agreed to take me up on my offer. The first thing I noticed about Jimmy was that he was very polite and concerned about what I thought of him. He was protective of me crossing the road to get to the restaurant. I ordered his requested chicken nuggets and a coke, and we sat down with my computer and began to chat with each other.
I asked him to tell me about himself and let him talk from there. He told me that his father beat him as a child and his mother did nothing to stop it. Although he has two other siblings, he said that he was different because he had anxiety issues and that his dad singled him out because of those issues and that he was always the outcast, the black sheep of the family. He said he graduated from High school in Bricktown, New Jersey with a third grade level education. He told me he was a great baseball player and could've played for the Yankees or the Mets. He said he wanted to be in the Military, but he couldn't pass any of the tests to get in. At 18, Jimmy said he finally stood up to his dad and told him he would beat him up if he tried to hit him again. His father called the police. and he ran out of the house into the woods as he saw five police cars pull up to the house. After that day, Jimmy never went home.
He moved in with his Grandmother who he says was the best "woman in the whole world." He said they were able to help each other and had a wonderful relationship. While living with her, he got his first job selling windows and worked there for seven years. He then got himself a better job selling heating systems for swimming pools and worked there for the next eight years. He was doing well when he went through a six-month period of bad events. Jimmy seemed very clear and concise about his early life, but once he began to describe these six months and beyond, he skipped around, his thoughts were very scattered, and he showed a tremendous amount of anxiety. He told me he had a 13-year-old daughter. He said when he lost a custody battle over her, that was the first of his downhill spiral. He said his daughter knows who he is. He referred to her as his Honey Bunny, but he couldn't remember the last time he saw her. Shortly after the loss of custody, his Grandma died. Jimmy said his Grandma wanted him to have the house they lived in but that his family went behind his back, took the house, and left him with nothing. During this same six-month period, Jimmy's cousin shot himself in the head right in front of him.
At this point, Jimmy had nowhere to live and started traveling and getting jobs in different states. He got a job that required digging in Texas, but he broke his wrist and couldn't dig anymore. He lost the job and moved back to New Jersey where for the first time in his life, he had no job, and nowhere to live. For the last seven and a half years, he's been living in a tent without work.
Jimmy says he likes to stay in the same spot because moving causes his anxiety to flare up. He likes to keep his belongings together, but the police come by once in a while and kick him out. Then he has to set everything up all over again. He's made it homey with a picnic area with tables and he has a king sized mattress given to him by the pastor he sees every Saturday. In the winter, he seals everything up in the tent to keep warm.
He misses his best friend Gene, who overdosed. Jimmy admits to being an alcoholic, but says he is only an occasional heroin user. When I told him I never heard of anyone using heroin just occasionally, he admitted to using just the day before. At one point, Jimmy told me he had a counselor and was getting methadone treatments, but one of the ladies at the center didn't get along with him. She made him anxious and he acted out and got kicked out of the program. He said he had to go cold turkey without heroin or methadone when that happened.
I asked him when he first took heroin. He told me he would only smoke marijuana and drink for a long time, but one time he was really depressed and his friends looked like they were having so much fun. He said they looked relaxed and not anxious and stressed like he was. So he tried it. He said that now, he needs alcohol and heroin to survive. So he spends his days trying to get them.
Towards the end of our talk together Jimmy was in deep thought. He said that he was surprised he was able to talk to me so easily. He said he knows he has problems and that he's not in denial. "I face my problems," he said. "They take over me. It's unbelievable how the mind works. You got the Lord and Satan, and I don't know who's talking to me. My brain is like scrambled eggs. It's all mixed up." I asked if he thought there was something that would help turn his life around and he said "I'm a failure. I can't manage my life on my own. Every time I do something good, something falls behind me every single time. I've been cursed at birth."
Jimmy says he heard his mom was sick and called once, but he doesn't want to call anymore. He said he never talks to his siblings because he has no contact information for them.
As he finished his chicken nuggets, Jimmy told me that "dreams do not come true. There is nothing in the future. I got nothing. This new drug got a hold of me. I just want my next fix." I thanked him for his time. He thanked me for the meal. He had a gentleness to him -- a kindness about him. I began to feel sorry for this man who was just a guy who had some bad luck and then made a moment's mistake by taking heroin. As we got up to leave, a black man he knew came by and asked him for a dollar. He told him he didn't have anything. The man was angry and walked away. Then Jimmy whispered to me that he hated "n's". He said they killed Lincoln because he wanted to free them and send them back to Africa. He said that "if Lincoln had lived, we would have been better off because we wouldn't have to live with any of them." Then he said goodbye and held the door for me as we parted ways. I didn't feel so sorry for him anymore.
It took me several days to get over meeting Jimmy. My feelings about him were so mixed with emotion. I felt so badly for the childhood he experienced. Being beaten and singled out as a failure in his childhood had to affect his self-confidence. But he found a savior in his grandmother. He held two steady jobs for long periods of time and stayed out of trouble. When he was hit with a run of bad luck, he still did what it took to find work, even if it was out of state. But injuring himself and not being able to work finally did him in. With no family to rely on and no work, he ended up on the street. Jimmy has obvious anxiety issues that have been left untreated and seem to have exacerbated over time. I remember asking him what would need to happen to turn his life around. He believes he can no longer change his life. He believes he has too many issues, aside from the Heroin addiction, to live a normal life. I could see how he held down jobs and moved forward with his life. I could see how a string of bad luck forced him out on the streets. I could see how trying Heroin to self-medicate got a hold of him and forced him into addiction. I could even see where he tried to seek out help from the system. I could see how he treated me with kindness, watchful for my safety as we crossed the intersection. I had a hard time seeing past his racism.
It took me a while, not only to get over my feeling about Jimmy himself, but to get over the experience of spending time, if only for an hour, in the dark and seedy side of life. I was unable to move forward and interview someone else. I had an overwhelming feeling of wanting to stay in my white privileged house with all the ugly side of life locked away from me, in the safety of my own little bubble. I had to force myself to go forward with my project.
With a lump in my throat, I made myself go back to the station where I met Dan. Dan looked scarier to me than Jimmy. A white man with a trimmed mustache and clean silver hair -- long but only two inches passed the collar. He was older looking and completely toothless which made him look more menacing than Jimmy's young crew cut look. It was difficult to understand what he said because of his toothless speech. He was 60-years-old with three daughters from one woman and a son from another. He has seven grandchildren. He said he sees his grandkids every month or two. He went to high school in Mt. Holly. He started selling drugs in High School at the Riverside Bowling Alley and was first arrested at 17. I asked what his parents did when he got arrested and he had a story to tell. Dan claims that the cops came to his home to arrest him for dealing drugs, put him in the cop car in front of his parent's house and proceeded to smoke weed before they took him to jail. He says his dad bailed him out. I asked what his parents did to him when he got home. His mother didn't say anything, and his step dad was just happy to have him back and able to work in the family grocery store. "Weren't they mad at you," I asked? He said his stepdad liked the money he gave him from selling drugs. He says he never sold them out of the house so his mother just turned a blind eye. Dan led his entire life dealing drugs, spending time in jail, and dealing again. He just kept going back to the only life he knew from the time he was seventeen. Dan claims he first slept outdoors about eight years ago. His mom gave him $1,000 at the time he got out of jail, but he spent it on alcohol and drugs and went right back to the business. He said he could stay with his daughters or son anytime he wants but rarely does. He started living full-time on the street six years ago when he got out of jail the last time. He just went straight from 10 years in jail to the streets. I asked if the prison system insisted he have a place to live before release. He said they just want an address and phone number and he gave them his daughter's but he never went there.
Dan admitted to never having a job in his entire life. He says he taught his son everything he knows about dealing drugs and gave him all his contacts. Dan told me that his son has $250,000 cash and owns two homes. He stays with him sometimes, but he'd rather live on the streets.
He admits to being an alcoholic, but says he only does heroin sometimes and did it yesterday but that he doesn't have to. Dan says he did acid and weed growing up. He then did LSD and meth. He says Heroin is everywhere, easy to get, and cheap.
I asked him why he sleeps on the streets if he can live with one of his children or even go to a shelter. He says there are too many attitudes in the shelter and too many rules living with his kids. He wants to live without any rules. He can only do that if he lives on the street. He told me that all the street people in the area know one another. They take turns panhandling on the corner at the train station. They even share the same sign. He said he doesn't really get hungry because he can eat at the soup kitchen every day. He says he only panhandles on Thursdays or Fridays because they're pay days and he can make more money. He says he can make $100 a day, but he usually makes about $40.
Dan told me he's not the only one who will only sleep on the streets. He said that the police chose certain days to call a "code blue." He said this means they believe it's too cold for people to be living on the streets. He said that even on these days, he and some of his friends won't go into a shelter. They don't trust anyone and don't want to live by their rules. "Nobody can tell me what I can and can't do. At home and in shelters, people are on my ass. I want to live my life out the way I choose to," said Dan.
After going 21 days straight on only McDonald's shakes and Budweiser, Dan ended up in the hospital severely ill. He does collect Social Security and is on Medicaid. He didn't give me details as to how he could obtain Social Security without ever working.
I wasn't as conflicted meeting Dan as I had been meeting Jimmy. Although I had an overwhelming feeling to go back in history and wring his parent's necks, I had no sympathy for Dan -- Dan who never worked a day in his life and admitted it. Dan who'd been selling drugs to our kids for over 40 years -- Dan, who plays the system.
I asked him what he would do if he could live his life all over again. With a very large grin, he said he'd do exactly the same thing with his life, only he'd do it better. He has no regrets. A few days after meeting Dan, I met Lisa. Lisa was standing at the same corner where I met Jimmy and Dan. It was her turn to hold the sign.
When I sat across from Lisa at that small immovable McDonald's table, I noticed her tattoo. It stood out. Beyond her tortoise shell glasses, the large mole on the top of her left nostril, and her still intact set of yellowing teeth, the tattoo over her heart could be partially seen beneath the wooden cross she wears dangling from a black string. When I got to know her better, I thought I'd ask her about that tattoo.
Thirty-eight-year old Lisa said she'd been on and off the streets for three years. She claims to have a wealthy family in Old Bridge, New Jersey where her 13-year-old daughter resides. At 13, Lisa told officials at her school that her mother beat her and burned her with cigarettes. Family services had Lisa's mother arrested, and sent Lisa to the North Brunswick Juvenile Center. She was eventually placed in various foster homes, but admits to sabotaging each placement in the hopes of going back home.
At 17, a judge finally sent Lisa back home, but Lisa says that her mother immediately started abusing her once again. For her 18th birthday, Lisa's mom called the police and had her kicked out of the house. Lisa says her father was a good man but always wanted to please her mom, so he just looked the other way when it came to Lisa.
Lisa got a job for $5.15 an hour at Bradley's department store and found a 36-year-old man to live with. She soon became pregnant and found her new boyfriend's fist breaking her nose and fracturing her cheek bone. By the time her daughter was three, Lisa was on welfare and living in a transitional housing development.
She tried to straighten out her life. She got her GED, started attending classes as Middlesex College, worked full-time, and raised her daughter. At 21, she had a new boyfriend and things were going well until one day she was caught in her parked car drinking with her new boyfriend. She was given a $250 ticket for open carry which she promptly ripped up. The unpaid ticket produced a warrant for her arrest. Eventually, she was pulled over for speeding and arrested on the spot.
After 30 days in jail, her mother was given custody of her daughter, and she found herself homeless. She wasn't on the streets for long before she started doing drugs. Tears rolled down her face when she reflected on these events. "All for a $250 ticket," she said. "If I'd just paid the $250, I'd still have my daughter."
She managed to find a good waitressing job and pay for a room to stay in, but with her drug addiction, she couldn't keep working. Lisa says she's probably had a hundred different jobs, but she can't keep any of them because the drugs eventually get in the way. She admits to making a bad decision when someone came to her to pass a bad check. Two months later, she was arrested and put in jail for three months and five years' probation. After serving two years of her probation, she was sent back to jail when her urine tested positive for drugs. The judge gave her three years in prison, but also recommended her for an intensive supervision program in Trenton. After three months serving time, she was approved for the program. She was moved to Trenton and was given a bed at the Last Chance Recovery House.
Lisa says she made numerous attempts at jobs and staying clean, but that everyone around her was relapsing and she had no good role models to follow. Eventually, she had served her time and was dropped off in front of the Trenton court house a free woman with nowhere to go.
She's tried to see her daughter, but the last time she went, her mother made her stand down the street from the house to see her. She just had to stand in the middle of the neighborhood to visit with her daughter. That was two years ago. She hasn't seen her since.
One of the first things Lisa told me was that she had recently lost 206 pounds. I asked her how she did it, and she told me that she was initially trying to lose weight, but then she lost her appetite and found out that she has ovarian cancer. After the diagnosis, she hasn't gone for any treatment. She said that the one or two places she went, wouldn't give her treatment without insurance. She gave up trying after that.
I asked Lisa, as I'd asked Jimmy and Dan before her, what she would want if she could change anything about her life. She thought for a while. Then a tear appeared in the corner of her right eye. Just one tear. We were both silent for a while. When she eventually began to speak, puddles lined the bottom of each of her eyes. She refused to let them fall. I actually watched them evaporate right where they appeared. "I want my health," she said. "I just want to be healthy." I told her I was certainly no doctor, but that it was possible to cure many cancers. I told her there were hospitals that had to treat those without insurance, and I urged her to seek one out.
$14.57. That's what I spent feeding lunch to three homeless people. When I finished talking with Lisa, I wondered how many more I should interview -- 10? 20? 50? What was the point? What was it I was trying to accomplish? What did I want to know?
I began to realize that interviewing seven more homeless people wasn't going to make a difference. Neither would interviewing 20 or 30 more. With those few numbers, it wasn't like I was going to win the Pulitzer prize for discovering the answer to the homeless problem in our country. I guess I just wanted to put some names and stories behind the people I look away from every day. I wanted to make myself feel better about passing them on my way in and out of the train station every day, on my way to my beautiful home, my beautiful family, my beautiful life. I wanted to appease my guilt about living well when others don't. In the end, I still have to pass them every day. They still lead their lives on the edge of darkness. A good day is scoring drugs and feeling better for a few hours. A bad day is skipping a fix and hoping tomorrow will bring a new one. Nothing changes. No one thing can miraculously make it all better. Each story is different. No conclusions can be drawn. No common dilemma resolved from the interview of three street people and fourteen dollars spent.
I want to wrap it all in a neat package and tell you that all street people are evil and work the system or that all street people are good and just had a series of bad breaks, but there are no neat packages to wrap, no shelters to build, no jobs to hand out that will allow a single piece of string to tie it all together with a solution no matter how many people I interview.
Of course, after interviewing only three people, I can't come to any conclusions or make any assumptions, but perhaps Lisa's tattoo says it best.
I finally asked her about it. It was a picture of a butterfly with the following words written over the top in Spanish: Mariposa Treseonera. I asked her for an explanation. She said it was her favorite song and that I should Google it, and so I did:
It means treacherous butterfly. The song is about being a rat in a trap that doesn't kill, but doesn't release. It's about pain, and love, and the choices we make in life. For me, my choice was to spend $14.57 on a few lunches to put faces on the faceless and names to their lives.