Greenwich Village for me is a place of tumultuous personal exploits dating back to my childhood. My dad and my brother grew up on the Lower East Side and I feel deeply rooted in the guts and grime of downtown Manhattan. Impulsive nighttime runs to Chinatown and shotgun driving in my dads yellow taxi enabled me to view a good many of the great city's more private faces and I loved all of them then...many more of them now. As I grew into a hell raiser, this is where I found just the right flavored of dereliction to teach me about the many modes of isolation I'd soon master. Queens was where my family lived. Lower Manhattan was where my soul soared. I'd eventually search for my musical voice there in the theatre of open mics and in the anti folk scene where I found that music is music and I can just play what I play. Several significant firsts happened there as well, including my my first time busking (very freeing), first acid trip (underwhelming for me....nearly catastrophic for my buddy), and first intercourse (not ready to talk about it).
When I was nine my big brother held my hand as he shouted "PIG" at cops, raided the pantry at the halfway house where he lived on St. Marks, and coached me on spotting transvestites in the mobs of passerby. The place was a vibrant array of fringe self-expression. The Washington Square arch may as well have been one of the of gates of heaven. The street performers, rock stars.
My brother would pull me subtlty toward him when we were about to pass a babbling junkie or a homeless person on a mission, making sure (it seems to me) to avoid making them feel any more self conscious than they already were. Never call them "bums", he said. They're just people. This wasn't a stretch for me to consider, as I'd long fostered an obsession with imagining myself in an array of dire situations so that I could know how to survive or escape if I were ever so challenged....whether it were dangling from a bridge, obese on the rush-hour subway, submerged in a Buick, or broke and homeless with winter approaching.
Queens kids my age started taking a city bus to school without our parents when Jr. High School started and the following summer I began venturing into Manhattan alone. I'd wander the grid of streets east of the subway station and get lost in the maze of everything west of sixth avenue.
Throughout my adolescence, I could muster a smile for a homeless person more readily than for a pretty girl or just about anyone else for that matter. When encountering an unfortunate person who was asking for money, I'd developed the habit of offering a smile, and I'd usually either give a dollar or two or at least some attention. (I'd be a better person if this had been my strategy in all social situations, but I had to begin somewhere), My conduct was motivated by equal parts a desire for these disadvantaged souls to feel OK, and a strategy to reduce the chances that they'd hate me. On several occasions I dropped some change in someone's cup and felt good to receive a nod of gratitude or a "God bless you", then passed the same guy coming back and heard the same plea....him not realizing we had just interacted. Where I'd been under the impression that I'd made an impact, the guy didn't even remember me. Of course, he was just working. He wasn't supposed to remember me. Just makes me wonder if I was doing it for them or for me.
Other times I asked if they wanted a bite and we'd go together to the deli (lest they spend the money on something other than sustenance...a little god-play here, but from an early age I knew where an addicts' priorities lay). A deli owner once put his hands on his hips and started to give the guy I was with shit for being there. The homeless man started back at him and there erupted a crossfire of curses and insults shrouded in dialects I could no longer comprehend but which that they'd apparently been refining for some time. I yelled something like "Be nice!!!!!", and paid for the sandwich, coffee cake and iced tea and got the hell out, shaken and feeling as if I'd been the catalyst for more trouble than solution.
Years later in my first few years of recovery...against the dictates of common wisdom....I spent a lot of time in places where I used to get high. I'd made clean and sober associations in the vicinity of some of these otherwise dark places, so I felt like it was ok. My favorite of these places was the East Village, particularly St. Marks Place. It was dangerous and welcoming at the same time, reminding me of the punk-rock bohemian I planned to be and the brother of whom I was still proud. I still felt at home in the thick anonymity and would slide through the streets like a soaring bird scanning for a tiny scampering opportunity below without the constraints of time or the elaborate warnings posted all over my other life. It was there that I could begin to forget how much I hated my life...how inadequate and small I was. There was therefore a relating that enabled me to see that, for the most part, these people just wanted to be fed and comfortable for the night ahead. I reasoned that I'd be no less ME if I found myself sleeping in filthy clothes, hungover on a soggy slab of cardboard. That I wouldn't lose sight of the good-boy-core that still lent narrative to every move I made, whether from a place of naïveté or of shame. I still need to remind myself of this when facing people (most of whom still scare the shit out of me).
One night when I was around twenty five, a homeless guy around forty was playfully soliciting bills and change by singing "happy birthday to me", dancing a bit, shaking his coffee cup of change, and harmlessly flirting with whomever gave him attention.
For some reason (which I think I understand but is no excuse), I said, "It's your birthday?"
He smiled and said "yes...it is!"
"What's today's date? " He froze and looked deeply into my eyes, dropping his arms to his side, slumped but with every ounce of kindness intact and after a pause he said the date. All business aside, he said "I'm not lying. It really IS my birthday" He was clearly hurt and needlessly ashamed. Here he was, bringing joy to what was a pretty grim situation, and I had the nerve to show him disrespect. On his frikin birthday.
I was frozen with regret. With no way to justify or play off my conduct, I said "I'm very sorry....I'm Seth...I'm an asshole and I'm not sure why I said that." I extended my hand. He said it was ok, that his name was Sam, and he smacked my hand. I opened my arms and said, "Happy birthday, Sam".
Our chests met and he put his arms around me and with mine around him I felt a surge of emotion as he squeezed and breathed deeply and slowly. His mouth was mashed against my shoulder and he whispered "no one hugs me". I held on a little longer, realizing the weight of this for him and then we both released at once. He stepped back, both of us with damp eyes (mine with remorse and his with....something else) and he said again, "wow...no one wants to hug me. Thank you." I thanked him, and meant it, still ashamed. I happily gave him the largest bill I had (couldn't have been much) apologized again, and left him to his work, still angry of that part of me that has to be a wise ass....that thinks everyone has my sense of humor or wants to play. That disrespects people with jokes made at their expense...aloud or in silence.
He imprinted immediately on my heart and it occurred to me how much better a person he was than me. How he'd let me know he was not lying without cursing me out or being victimized by how offended he was. He was resilient, open and cheerful with many reasonable excuses to be just the opposite.
Although I was back there many times in the coming weeks and months and years, I never saw him again. I hope he found success on whatever corner he chose. And I hoped even more that he'd eventually find his way off of the street. But I didn't hold my breath.
I used to be quite stuck in the paradox of being righteous and of feeling good about that very righteousness. I guess I still am. Was I doing it to BE good? Or to FEEL good? Was I trying to compensate for bad behavior or evil thoughts over which I felt guilt or remorse? Or was I just doing something that simply needed doing? Lately I worry less about this. Good is good, and what shines on one illuminates many, so I try to just do stuff and think less. So long as I breathe there will be no putting this noisy head to sleep...we're a package deal and there's work to be done.
And I do still wonder if Sam wasn't making it up. If maybe as part of his daily routine he landed at the date on the calander over the desk at the shelter, or on the front page of one of the newsstand periodicals, and had his "birthday" loaded and ready for just my sort of skeptical insensitivity.
And so what? Maybe that's the way to do it. To live in a world where you celebrate right out in the open and where you ask for the stuff you need, accept gratefully and use completely. Where regardless of what hell erupts onto your path and what the world may see as good or right or decent, it's ok to ask for what you need and everyone is worth asking and every day is your goddam birthday.