The Abyss: A Night in a New York Shelter

Nicholas Powers Jan 2, 2010

Last Christmas Eve, I stayed over-night at a Manhattan Shelter. The following article is based on my experience.

“Step up,” the cop waved a metal-detector wand over me. I didn’t bring weapons but thought about it. When I told friends my plan to sleep at a homeless shelter Christmas Eve, they said don’t. Insane men lurk the halls. I don’t have a phone to call for help. One said, “A guy just got raped in a shelter. Three dudes held him down and took turns.”

Their warnings were a net thrown over me but safety was a betrayal of those who were falling. Each month jobs are lost, families are squeezed out of their lives and drop into the shelters below. The city has more homeless now than at any time since it began keeping records. Nearly 37,000 New Yorkers have no home. To understand it, I slipped under the numbers and came to a shelter. I tossed my bag on the conveyor belt as the guard talked on the phone not looking at the x-ray; how many knives have slipped under his careless eyes.

Formerly Bellevue Psychiatric hospital, the entrance to the 30th Street Men's Intake Shelter is located at First Avenue and 29th Street.The 30th street intake shelter was like a prison with hard concrete walls and floors, meal schedules tacked on boards and hallways that smell of sweat and panic. Guards laughed as one said, “Yo give me three months and I’ll be able to rip a nigger’s head off,” and flexed a large bicep. I winced and looked around for the desk. Above it on the door-frame someone wrote – God Hates Africans – Africans Are Cursed. “Is this your first time,” the Nigerian secretary asked. I nodded. “Go down there first stairs on your left.”

As I walked, eyes flashed like cameras. They were sizing me up and I did the same, measuring each shadow sleeping on the floor. In the waiting room, men dozed on chairs like puppets with their strings cut. No one was at the desk. I sat and the guys woke up, saw my glasses, dreads and decided I was not a threat and nodded off. No one really sleeps, I thought, we’re too afraid. Fear tightens the body and we never descend too far, always ready to wake and grab our stuff before it’s stolen. Then it struck me how easily I started to think “we.”

Hours ago I was in a warm home emptying my wallet of cards; metro-pass, video, library, Trader Joe’s, school ID. The only things left were a driver’s license and loose change. The “we” I belong to has money, has home has safety. We also have a mythology that justifies our comfort. So when “we” walk by homeless the old stories surface. They’re on drugs. They’re criminals. They’re lazy.

It’s only when our world collapses do we ask of the one under us. With a thin wallet I left home remembering my last phone call. “Don’t worry, it’s like that movie the Abyss. Just taking a trip to the bottom,” I laughed weakly. “Go under Christmas with a light to visit the aliens.” The memory faded into wind blowing through the ice-lined streets. At the corner was a payphone. I called a shelter and put my second-to-last quarter. No ring, no quarter and the last one shined in my palm. This is how close it gets. On the last try, it ringed and a secretary picked up and gave me directions.

First lesson: people don’t give a shit. In the blustery night, my feet froze. Hot goo trickled out of my nose. Numbed, I reached the shelter. Jittery women scattered from me. God how open their wounds are I thought. The guard said, “I’m sorry this is a woman’s shelter. Hold on let me call..yeah, where is the men’s shelter…okay…no it’s not cold out.” She turned to me and said, “You have to go to 30th street intake on 1st Ave.” Was there a chance for a subway fare? “No, when it’s not cold clients have to walk.”

Second lesson: New York is big. I didn’t have a subway pass. While walking the only thing to distract me were my thoughts. Time is as slow or fast as the conversation in my head. After arguing with the memory of a lover or re-living a childhood triumph I looked up and wasn’t half way across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Third lesson: freedom isn’t free. Walking through downtown I saw my reflection on the store windows. I had no money. If I never did again I would not be welcome here. New York always seemed like a mountainous maze of inter-locking rooms. Without money the city became an endless wall of store windows that like one-way mirrors; you could see in but no one could see you.

I walked past Union Square, past 23rd street. A big man in a fur coat pawed through garbage bins, stuffing half-bitten burgers in a bag. I heard a mucus-thick wheeze in his breathing and wondered how long until it clogged his lungs. Ahead a slim shadow of a man zigzagged across the sidewalk. When he passed under a street-light, I saw he was naked save for rags he tied around his loins. Loose babble frothed around his mouth, “Change? Change?” His eyes bobbed like buoys in a storm. “Here man,” I said and poured my last coins in his hand. Mind sloshing out of his mouth, he waddled barefoot into the wintry night.

Who are we? What kind of people cut the weak loose so that they walk wild through the streets, so numb with insanity they don’t even know they’re dying? I heard the arguments. Some of them want to be homeless; it’s a freedom from civilization. Fuck you I thought, anyone can see that pain has broken them. The pressures that pound on us have hit hard enough to shatter their lives. Every step closer to the shelter felt like a descent into the city depths and I felt the squeeze. The phantoms I’d ignored on the subway as they shook cups, stepped around as they slept in the street were becoming real.

At 30th street, I saw men leaning on the fence. “Rasta, let me talk to you Rasta.” I hunched my shoulders. “Rasta I just need some help.” Voices pulled like a cobweb, sticky but tearing as I went by. “Nigga we got business!” Men squeezed by each other on a soggy wooden plank that led to the shelter, where staff circled around cigarettes, measuring me as I went in, where a cop said “Step up” and waved a magnetic wand over my body, where a secretary pointed to a stairwell where I found this room of men stranded on the edge of sleep.

We waited. The room was like a cavern and every step echoed. A heavy guard walked by. The guy beside me called, “Hey, HEY!” He turned. “When are we going to get rooms?” The guard shrugged, “She comes when she comes.” The guy sucked his teeth and leaned back and said to me, low as if passing a secret. “They have to give us a room. It’s the law.” Why was he so hush about his rights? Oh, you’re afraid of power, I thought.

“How you get out here,” I chopped my grammar as if broken language reflected a broken life. “My father kicked me out,” he fidgeted. “Been sleepin’ on the subways but I can’t do it anymore. I was here before. It’s law. They have to give you a bed.” He sounded schooled and his eyes were more anxious than angry. The men further down were harder, spoke knuckle hard slang. One had been cut from temple to chin. Privately, I titled him Scar-Face. The one next to me rubbed his hands as if to scrape off his doubt. “They have to give you a bed.”

On the other side of was the Chatterer, a young man on the pay-phone who talked rapidly as if furiously weaving words to connect him to the outside world. The guard came back in with a black trash bag, “Here guys,” he pulled out plastic wrapped meals. “Merry Christmas.” He tossed the bags, I caught one and peered inside. “Can I have your cheese puffs,” the Chatterer leaned in over my lap.

“No I’m hungry.” I wasn’t but didn’t want to give too much too quickly, it could brand me a weak push-over. So I waited laughing, thinking what kind of Survivor shit is this? But it was. Here you build alliances with who won’t attack you, or steal your bag or bother you too much, who’ll listen when you need to drop your secrets. After eating the sandwich, I held my cheese-puffs, “You want.”

“Yo!” he grabbed the bag. “Thanks.” Well at least my tikki torch would not be snuffed out by the Chatterer. The secretary came in yelling in a thick Nigerian accent as we got up, “You wait! You wait! I’ll call you.” I thought of the door-frame curse. Is this is where immigrant employees get posted, the bottom of the bottom? An African sifting through fallen African-Americans, she took our names, scanned our finger-prints and sent us to another waiting room. As we left, I saw an old man, breathing heavy, balanced on a cane, his knee was stiff and he swung his leg like a pendulum with each step. “Need help,” I asked. “No it’s okay.” I saw the heavy bag he carried. “Let me help with the bag. Don’t worry I’m not trying to run with it.” He nodded, I lifted it and it hung like lead. “Man what you got in here.” He swung his leg and said, “My life.”

We slept on the plastic chairs. Neon light buzzed. I studied the cracks in the floor each like a life-line written in city stone. How tangled and random our lives are. How close, I thought had some of my friends come to homelessness. One escaped her abusive family, trudging through a blizzard to a friend’s house, bouncing on couches until she found an apartment. She built her life on a lonely freedom. Another was kicked out at sixteen by her father and floated from San Francisco with a guitar singing songs of exile. Everyone who brushed homelessness came away running toward some inner horizon. Some desperate need compelled us to squeeze too hard whatever and whoever looked like home and we destroyed the very hope of building it. Even I, raised in an orphanage was on the run. Maybe that’s why I came here, to re-create the origin of my exile and heal it.

Another man came in, tall, long face, small dreads bouncing on his head. He waited a respectful moment then asked, “Has anyone been called yet?” I shook my head but watched him. His body was calm, hands folded between his knees, “What’s your name?”

“Cadrell. Just came out of prison today.” A string inside me pulled tight. “Hell of a Christmas gift,” I said. “Not that Christ is Satan, I mean, fuck what do I mean…”

He laughed, “Yes sir. Yes sir it is a great gift.” Sir, I thought, he called me sir and shook my head. Sometimes to survive, prisoners lock themselves inside a faith to protect whatever innocence they have left.

“Cadrell, I want ask you something,” I held my palms up. “If you don’t want to answer its cool but how long were you in prison?”

“Five years, sir.”

“How’d you make with your spirit intact?”

“Surround myself with positive people,” he said his hands circled his chest as showing me the invisible force field he lived within. “I stay right with God and God stays right by me.” He held me in his gaze, “You don’t believe in Him do you?”

“Cadrell, I’ve killed God inside me so many times,” I giggled bitterly. “So many times.”

A staff guy came in and gave us room assignments. The old man and I shared a room. He was old, crippled and harmless and I fell on the cot, breathing slow, able to relax when Cadrell came in. “Anyone need toothpaste?” I shrugged, “No, I’m good.” Good prison etiquette, I thought, if I was in lock-down Cadrell would be a solid cell-mate then I realized the doors did not have locks. Anyone could come in at anytime.

Should I move the cabinet in front of the door, I debated when my room-mate said, “It’s better here than the other shelters. Too many young boys there. They cut each other up, fight,” his voice rattled like a can. “I was here before, a year ago, they tried to get me to therapy but I’d be high, miss meetings back on the street. I stopped doing the drugs,” he chuckled. “Man let me stop lying I stopped doing the heavy drugs. I still get high sometimes and drink some but I stopped the heavy stuff.”

The light was off and in the dark room we were just voices floating around each other. I looked through the window and saw clouds molded by wind, driven, like us, by forces we can’t see. My room-mate began again, “Crazy how you get high you forget to eat. Sometimes at the end of the day my stomach sucked itself in.”

“Why stop?” He coughed, lay back in bed, “I just woke up one day, knew I lost three years of my life. Three years.” He said it as if taking the full measure of his loss. “What happened to your knee?” The cot squeaked as he turned, “I twisted my knee but never got treatment. I was high so much I didn’t even feel it. Now I can barely move it.”

“It’s Christmas, where’s your family?”

“Where’s yours.”

“Dead,” not true, I thought but it felt true.

“Oh I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be they weren’t good people.”

“Like that huh.”

“Like that.”

“My son won’t have nothin’ to do with me,” he sat up and began scratching his chest, his torso, his knee and his legs as if scraping the years off. “I should be at Christmas with my grandkids,” he kept scratching and it sounded like sand-paper. “Instead I’m in this damn shelter.” He scoured his body over and over and I just listened to this man tear himself apart.

Panting, he laid back down. I wanted to ask why his son was mad but was tired, too tired to carry his story and through the window I saw a building under construction, its walls like cards stacked on top of each other. “I was born and raised in New York, seen it change,” his voice trickled through memories. “Why can’t you go home brother,” I asked but either he didn’t hear or didn’t want so I repeated, “Why can’t I go home brother.”

No that’s not what I meant but my eyes were too heavy to open. It wasn’t sleep but a thin darkness, thin enough that faint sunlight was enough to wake me. Morning glowed through the steel net window. Christmas Day and I was in a strange bed. The hallway was busy with men showering and going to breakfast.

“Merry Christmas,” I waved to the servers handing out small plastic boxes with French toast over a meat patty. Men sullenly ate their food. I sat, ripped the top off and took a few bites and spat it out. A brother, face pierced with rings and bolts said, “They gave us the worst stock of meat.” I nodded, surveyed the room. Men beaten by pride, beaten by sickness, by guilt, by dumb bad luck, by a system of power they refused to see or fight, such men ended here. So much pain and I had no power to heal only to witness. Leave, I thought, leave what you can’t fix.

Walking out of the shelter arms upraised, I laughed, “Home is for closers” and reached into empty pockets. A woman in a fur coat stood on the corner waving for a cab. “Excuse me miss.” She glanced, pulled her coat tight. It looked warm. “Merry Christmas?” Silence. “Could you spare change? I’m just two dollars away from home.” She stepped back. Each heel clicked like a loud heartbeat. “Thank you anyway,” I walked away, fantasizing about ripping her fur coat and taking it. A man sipped coffee on the corner. I stepped up slowly, hands out. “Hey I’m just trying to get back to Brooklyn,” I lowered my head. “Could you spare change?” His mouth pulled tight, “Sorry…”

“I ain’t tryin’ to bother you,” my hands spun in the air as if digging through a wall. “I’m just two dollars away from home.” He jogged to the other side of the street as I spread my arms. “Oh you can’t give a nigga’ some change,” I snarled. “Fuck Christmas!”

Warm wind billowed out of the subway entrance. I stepped down and walked to the booth. The MTA man studied me. I held up my palms. “I’m cold. I’m trying to get home,” raised my eyebrows. “You think you can let me through?” He nodded to the gate and let me in. Aching, I leaned on a girder. The train rushed by, slowed and opened its doors; I rushed to a seat and collapsed. Head on the window, I tried to sleep but the tunnel lights flashed through my eyelids and with each flash I saw a face from the night; Cadrell, the old man on the cane, the guard, the naked madman, the Nigerian secretary, the guy holding his coffee and running away.