This post was written by Brian Ransom.

The homeless people who hang out on Ninth Street have become recurring characters in my life. I live on Ninth, and I see them so often that I’ve given them little nicknames in my head. There’s Frogman, who sits on a stoop at the corner of Ninth and Broadway sometimes and lets his feet dangle like one of Kermit’s friends would over a lily pad. There’s Snakeman, too, who has introduced himself to me at least fifty times as an “advocate for the homeless” and who once peeked inside my wallet and said, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat, you’ve got plenty of money in there to give!”

One Friday, as I pass one of the hot spots for homeless people on Ninth Street, I hear a voice and turn to see another regular, Army Rocker. He has scraggly hair, wears camo pants on a regular basis, and often listens to a little radio he carries with him. He looks like an extra from Pirates of the Caribbean.

“Hey, man, do you got a phone I could borrow?” he asks.

I shake my head.

“Nah, I seriously left it at home today,” I say. “I’m sorry, man.”

“That’s all right, man,” he says. “I lost my phone, and I was hoping I could use your phone to call it so I could find it. But it’s all right.”

He points to the Subway we’re standing in front of.

“I went inside ‘cause this lady was buying me a sandwich, and I set the phone — I set it right here on this ledge, and now it’s gone.”

I shake my head and mumble something like, “Man, I’m sorry, man,” something just wonderfully eloquent. I have no idea what to say.

“I just got this phone, man,” he says. “Brand new! Just got it. See, man, I’ve got the charger and everything.” He pulls a tangled cord out of his pocket and cradles it in his hands like it’s a fragile little mystical hummingbird.

Looking to escape as quickly as possible, I assure him that the police will likely be able to hunt down the phone ‘cause cells have tracking devices in them, or something like that. I have no idea if it’s actually true, and I imagine the man can see right through my attempt at comfort.

“The police don’t care about me,” he says with a grimace. “I’m homeless.”

I make some remark about the weather being nice, but he rebukes me with a comment about how cold the streets are at night. I am painfully aware of my privilege and want to jump into a manhole.

As we talk, a family approaches and begins to examine the man’s belongings, now spread out all over the sidewalk: his lumpy backpack, his old gray radio, his sign that reads in carefully Sharpied letters “a little help goes a LONG way,” all these things spread out like goods at a bazaar. The father of the family leans over to peer at the sign, and Army Rocker shoots him a dirty look.

“Hey!” he says. “No touching. You see this stuff? No touching.” He points at his line of stuff and then makes some referee motion that roughly translates to “no good” or “that touchdown was invalid.” I am not well-versed in the language of sports officials, but the message is clear.

The father doesn’t appear to speak English, and he just smiles that oblivious tourist smile and waves at Army Rocker.

“Hey!” Army Rocker says. “What did I say? This ain’t a museum. No touching.”

The conflict makes me anxious, and I scurry away. I take Eighth Street home instead to avoid another awkward conversation with my homeless neighbors.

(Photo on the homepage: Sammi Citron)

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