Did it help that I felt guilty?
Or that I felt bad afterwards?
Or that maybe I had been drugged as part of a plan to euthanize the homeless?
I don’t know. I don’t know if this is the same as “the white guilt” that Rob accuses people of having during Avatar or whether it just sticks something in you to take a free meal.
It was cold on Wednesday.
That’s what I remember.
I had come out of my apartment wearing my fleece and my jacket, since I remembered Eva telling me it was going to get colder as the week went on.
Pursuant to what she said, it was, colder than the 56 degrees it had been on Monday when I had walked to meet to Eva in a long-sleeved-shirt-and-jeans down Bedford St for dinner.
Wednesday it was below freezing and biting as I walked down Canal, my fingers glued to a burrito I had left over from the night previous, munching on it as I regretted that I hadn’t microwaved it (I didn’t want to unwrap the tinfoil) and that the air outside was even colder than it was.
It was my first day at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center doing “outreach”. The past few times I’d been there had been, I had been manning the needle exchange, sitting by myself in a small corner of the center, handing out 4 sugars to people who asked for 6 and trying not to feel guilty when I used the syringe database computer to look up whether anyone I know had heard from festivals. It was whatever you could do to beat the boredom.
But today I was going out on a mission to the streets with volunteers, interns and staff. We were walking to Tompkins Square Park to set up a table on the perimeter with condoms and lube and female condoms and syringes that were tucked tightly in the bottom of a box so that they weren’t visible and people wouldn’t steal them.
For the first 45 minutes or so I was sitting in the exchange, waiting for everything to be ready, but when I finally got out the sun was out and the breeze was low and I took off my fleece for the long walk down Allen.
We had a new volunteer, Katy, a petite Asian girl, an anthropology major from Brooklyn College who had concentrated in school on studies of the homeless. She just seemed happy to be there.
Near her, coordinating us was Jamal, a built, bald and goofy-looking Ameri-Pak bro, the outreach coordinator from the center who was roughly only a year older than me.
As we walked down Allen, towards the park, Katy tried to do her best to glean information from people, what was the center about, who we’d be dealing with, while I chatted up Jamal about New York City real estate, the efficacy of owning a car and his party-loving Russian girlfriend and her Russian Judo champion father, whom he admired.
The conversation Jamal and I had was fun and easy, a side-effect of the fact that no matter who you are in life, your early 20s are always a jumble, thrusting you into different situations, but at least givng you a basis to relate.
Still, my stomach was knotted as we approached 6th St. I had jobs to hear back from, festivals to be rejected from, Eva had just lost her health insurance and I wasn’t sure who I was going to see in Tompkins Square Park. My sister’s crazy ex-boyfriend had just been released from prison and was residing in parts unknown at least to me. I knew Tompkins was somewhere he used to spend time and I comforted myself knowing that at least Jamal could cut an intimidating figure if we did end up running in. Looking back, even thinking that, makes me feel like a coward.
But we didn’t run into him as we handed out condom packs throughout the park.
Jamal, with his sunny gym-room attitude would go up to old people bent over carts in the park, approaching with effortless aplomb.
“Hey, pal, wants some free condoms today?” He’d ask as if he was offering a sip from his Muscle Milk.
Most people turned us away, but a few took them, one guy even taking several in ecstatic glee.
“Condoms, I need em condoms!” He said, laughing and stuffing them into his many different pockets.
I remember getting into a discussion with one man, older, who we approached as he was sitting on a bench.
Our instructions were if we saw someone who was homeless who might want housing to talk to them, as we had social workers and a housing specialist back at the center.
The older man said he was clean, that he’d been off drugs for years, but he’d been on the street for 6 of them.
“We have great people there.” Jamal told him. “We’re on Canal and Allen.”
“What are they going to do? I have a sleeping bag.” He said, pointing in his cart. “It’s warm. What are they going to do, put me in a shelter, put me on Ward’s Island? What do I want to go to Ward’s Island for.
I had been to Ward’s Island for a film shoot and had seen and even entered the homeless shelter there, looking for the bathroom that wasn’t provided on set. I squirmed as I remembered how cold they’d been to me, telling me that I needed to see a social worker before I could get a bed and when I told them I just needed a bathroom, repeating the same sentence.
I felt the man had a point, but I believed in the organization I worked for.
“Listen,” I told him, speaking for the first time so far in our rounds around the park. “We’ve housed people before. And no one is going to deport you to a shelter at our place without your permission.”
His look softened.
“I mean, look. The worst thing that happens is you lose the 30 minutes of time. The best is you get somewhere to stay.”
“Sorry to bother you.” I added.
“You ain’t bothering me.” He told me. “I got cops, noise in my ears, cars and loud people and a shitty bathroom. You of all things ain’t bothering me. You’re just trying to help.”
Later that day, when I came back to the center to pick up my fleece, two men were ejected from the center. When I asked what happened, as I often don’t see things from my sequestered corner of the floor, my boss told me that they had met with case managers from the center and deemed ineligible for the program. That was all I had been told, but they’d left and not been invited back. I wondered, guiltily, if I’d set the man I’d met in the park up for something similar and what exactly the criterion was for joining the program.
Another woman came up later to the table outside the park with a story, telling how she used to volunteer at the center, how she got clean, how she was working and how as soon as she got clean she couldn’t get any more help. Her voice sounded wanting but her smile was broad as she asked for some needles and we gave them to her after giving her a card. She kept smiling as she walked away, poised in that wanting still.
As we waited there it got colder and I got more nervous as I realized the last reason why my stomach had been hurting me: I hadn’t eaten since that cold burrito in the morning. A truck stopped next to us and started unloading with food and my mind quickly grew to skepticism as I asked Jamal who they were.
“Nice guys” He responded and so it seemed.
The men were Indian-looking for the most part, ladling out what looked and smelled like curried dal with a fresh-greens salad with endive and cherry tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese, from a large plastic rectangle.
“They’re smart.” I told Jamal. “Dal is vegetarian, but it has protein in it. The salad has fresh greens and cheese and tomatoes. There’s calcium and vitamins in there.”
And as I stared at the men in line, the hot tea they ladled out to the hunchers who waited in front of the table, I thought that it looked very good indeed.
“Could I?” I asked Jamal, my body facing the food.
“Sure,” He replied, non-chalantly. “We all do it sometimes.”
I got in line behind the others and I got to the front, I asked what was in it as they only called it “rice”. It was dal, like I suspected, with broccoli and celery and onion and cauliflower swimming in it, stewed along with the rice. They piled my plate high up, even though they could probably see The New Yorker peeking out of my inside-coat-pocket, first with the stew and then with the salad. As I headed past the table a bald, white man stopped me and proffered me a large, frosted piece of Banana Bread.
“Here, have some Banana bread.” He told me.
I looked at him sideways and he clicked. He was a Hare Krishna priest who had been interviewed by someone from my documentary class in Sophomore year. He had come off very well, as a former hippie who had gotten involved and stayed since it meant to him a life of virtue and tolerance and work. When he spoke, he sounded happy in a way some religious people often do not.
I recalled seeing books on the food table next to the pots called “Chant and Be Happy” and “Krishna!”, but when I mentioned that I’d seen him before to the priest, he told me he talks to a lot of people and began ministering banana bread to the next person on line.
Regardless, they told me to come back at 11:15 on Monday, Wednesday or Friday if I wanted another meal.
I ate it in the park with Jamal, who came with to hang out, but didn’t partake. It was delicious and spicy and filling. The banana bread was sweet and had dates or apricots hidden within it, which one I couldn’t tell.
“I don’t like dates.” chimed Jamal.
In the end I couldn’t finish it and again asked Jamal whether it was “ok” to throw it out. He reassured me and I tossed it as I headed back out of the park, towards our table.
Before I left to go back to the center, I ran across the street, next to the Odessa Diner, to buzz up to see Rob and Zach, who were doing some of sort of Photoshop/YouTube shenanigans on their collective computers. When I told them I ate the food, even Zach who had been mooching and eating at the “iron stomach” 5-combinations Chinese Buffet gave me a disgusted smile as he told me: “Yeah, you shouldn’t eat that.”
Rob in his half-deadpan voice also told me that Zach was going to have a Directors’ Series next week at NYU, the industry screening series in the film program wherenoted alumni and other come to screen their feature films and talk about them.
I balked, but they showed me the email. I shook my head.
It looks like Bummer Summer was going to have its NYU premiere.
“I can’t believe you’re having a Directors’ Series.” I told Zach.
And he shrugged as he showed Rob the latest changes he’d done to his poster.
When I got back to the center, I talked to a few people. I was worried still about Eva’s insurance situation. She was just starting school after a long and complicated battle with the CUNY system over registration and I knew it would help for her to have one less thing to try to worry about. I figured with all the users coming through the center, someone on staff would have to know about health insurance and they were helpful a bit. Eva was worried she’d have to pay for all her sessions and medicine, a hefty sum, in the interim time before she found insurance. But we found out as a student she qualified for HealthPlus, a free New York City plan and that her sessions would most likely be covered.
When I got back home, she put a heart on my bed full of Reeses’ cups and two Gatorades, one red and one blue.
“I might run out of insurance,” She told me. “But at least I know who to go to for heart-care.”
And we kissed.
I felt sick the rest of the night as I thought about the food I’d eaten, my sinuses were bothering me and tingling and my nose was stuffed it up. It was hard to tell what was physical and what was all in my head.
But as Eva I lay down and watched Whit Stilman’s “Barcelona”, I felt weak and tired and asked if I could take a nap.
She let me and didn’t hold it against me when I slept past the 30 minutes I told her and she kissed me again and again before she left to go home to prepare for her first day of school.
The thoughts still gave me nightmares as I dreamed that I had become a cannibal and was merry about it, a refined cannibal, until I looked down and saw myself excreting whole body parts.
I don’t know if what I did that day was ethical or whether it’s overblown or whether even talking about it like this is worse even than what I did.
But here, among other things, I write about what I eat and where to find it.
So I’ll do that again.
After waking up in the middle of the night, a few times, checking my email and taking some generic-brand Sudafed, I woke up again, in the morning, opened my laptop and applied for jobs.
Dal (curried lentils) with vegetables and salad and banana bread- Free
West side of Tompkins Square Park (Avenue A between 7th St and St. Marks Pl.)
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:15am.
L to 1st Avenue. 6 to Astor Pl.