Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Jim White: "HELP! HELP! HELP!"

"HELP! HELP! HELP!" a man's voice desperately cries just ahead of me on this busy city street.
It's the middle of the day on St. Mark's Place, one of the busiest streets in downtown New York. I hear the urgent cry from nearby but see no caller, no bedlam breaking out, no telltale signs of calamity. The river of pedestrians flows smoothly east and west.
"HELP! HELP" HELP!" The voice barks out again, but nobody seems to be taking any action. Am I hallucinating?
I take a few steps and the voice calls out again, this time closer. Then I see him through the crowd; a raggedly dressed black man casually propped against a wall, smoking a cigarette, wearily eyeing the torrent of pedestrians coursing by on the busy street. It's his stillness that catches my eye. Everyone else on St. Marks Place is engaged in some highly purposeful movement. This man, he's motionless, at least until he grimaces, then howls out, "HELP! HELP! HELP!"
Nobody but me seems to notice. Why?? It's a mystery...one that bears further investigation.
He's holding that crudely lettered cardboard sign, the one you see in the picture. The sign says, "Trying to raise 1,000,000.50 for wine research". The ragged coffee cup at his feet holds a few coins. Now I get it; he's a bum, or at least what we call "a bum" during this epoch of human compassion. Within a few years a new age will dawn and he and those like him will be bestowed an improved title. We will from that point on refer to them as, "homeless".
I'm new to the neighborhood and so take my cues from the seasoned New Yorkers surging by. They avoid eye contact, assiduously ignoring the calling man. Heads ducked, they keep moving, moving, moving, forever surging forward. Following their lead, I do the same, heading west toward Broadway, doing my best to ignore the bum's cries for help. This is counterintuitive for me, but I'm learning to be a New Yorker, so I figure that's part of the deal. Eventually the cries are subsumed by the relentless din of the city soundscape.
It's the early 80's and in recent years the "homeless" population in New York has skyrocketed after Reganomic austerity measures have led to massive budget cuts on city and state agencies. Hardest hit are the social service providers, mental institutions and halfway houses who have no recourse but to release legions of mentally ill patients whom they can no longer afford to treat.
At this time New York is already a city under siege by it's own inhabitants, with crime ravaging neighborhoods as new drugs like crack and crystal meth systematically flood the streets, ravaging inner city communities already struggling to keep their heads above water. With nowhere to go, the disenfranchised souls filter into the cityscape and settle into a life of public misery.
I've just arrived in New York, and something about this man standing there with his sign puts me in mind of a music video I saw a few years earlier on, of all things, a Dutch TV music show called Top of the Pops. The emcee of the show excitedly spoke of a new form of music called "rap" and seemed thrilled at the prospect of presenting this video. Understandable. I listened slack jawed as the band, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, unleashed a powerful, rhythmic urban lament called "The Message".
"Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge/
I'm trying not to lose my head/
It makes me wonder some times/
makes me wonder how I keep from going under."
At the time, watching the video within the sanitized context of Dutch TV, the story line felt fictional, but it hasn't taken long in New York to confirm that the undertow spoken of in the song is an ever present, relentless menace, particularly in tidal zones where poverty and affluence collide---the upper 90s into Harlem, Hells Kitchen, and the Villages---East and West. In areas like these street people are everywhere, and the ones who manage to hold their own generally do so with a gritty combination of guile, creativity and world weary perseverance.
I pass by the man crying HELP often as the months pass, usually while on my way to a cafeteria job in Soho where I make sandwiches long into the evening. At all hours of the day and night he's always there, working his schtick, holding his sign and howling HELP! HELP! HELP! There are others like him, each with their own angle on street marketing.
There's the pleasant looking mulatto man over on Fifth Avenue who strategically stations himself in a narrow section of sidewalk next to a Catholic church, humbly requesting from exiting parishioners a mere penny. "Could you spare a penny…?" he gently intones. He's likely aware of the allegory of the Widow's Mite in the New Testament and is riffing on it. He's chosen the soft sell route, and it's quite effective.
There's the middle aged white woman who works the Gramercy Park area. She approaches men exclusively, calmly reporting that she's just been raped. She asks for a quarter to call her sister for help. Who can say no to her? She does a steady trade, successfully employing this gambit for several years.
There's the suave con man dressed as a doctor regularly stationed outside Beth Israel Hospital. He apologetically asks for a moment of your time, then in a deeply embarrassed, elegant baritone informs you that he's locked himself out of his office in the hospital for the third time that day and cannot bear the humiliation of calling the maintenance man yet again. He extracts a checkbook from the deep pockets of his white lab smock and offers to write you a check for fifty dollars if only you'll give him ten dollars cash---the amount he needs to hire a cab to drive him to his lavish floor-through apartment on Park Avenue where he keeps a spare set of keys. (Always desperate for money, I almost bite on this one, until I notice his shoes. They're clearly not doctor's shoes. When I point this out he studies the shoes for a moment, chuckles, then replies, "You know, you're right. Thanks. Time for a costume upgrade.")
There's the Puerto Rican couple who work the waiting areas in emergency rooms at various affluent uptown hospitals. They pose as grieving parents, mentioning to others seated around them that their son has been hit by a car and is in surgery. They speak in defeated tones of the desperate gypsy cab ride in from the Bronx and how the driver took their last dime. They report they have children at home unattended and need a mere $26 for bus fare for the wife to return to the Bronx. They do very well for themselves.
The streets are awash with grifters and drunks and crack heads and personality disordered sociopaths who will happily slit your throat for no observable reason whatsoever.
Months go by. I pass the man crying HELP daily without ever speaking to him or casting coins into his cup. But I study him. He's a bit of a one trick pony. Just the sign with the joke message on it. He seems to do best on weekend evenings when everyone's drunk and susceptible to the drinking humor crafted into his pitch slogan about wine research.
One day as I'm passing by the man is shouting HELP when he stops mid-howl, locks eyes with me, looks me up and down with a puzzled expression, then takes a deep drag off his cigarette and says, "Damn man, you got to change them pants you wearing. You had them on four days straight now!"
And he's right. I have. Thousands of people pass him daily. Has he been keeping track of their wardrobe choices too?? He's successfully stopped me dead in my tracks and I'm studying him with a perplexed expression.
"But they good looking pants." He adds. "So it's cool."
The pants I'm wearing are wildly out of style. They feature a broad checkered pattern that resembles bad 70's polyester sofa fabric.
I laugh. And so this day, instead of ignoring him, I walk over and shake the bum's hand, then ask him a simple question, "Why do you always only shout HELP! HELP! HELP!" I ask. The answer seems obvious, but it isn't, and so the question pleases him,
"It's my name. See, ain't nobody know that. They think I'm calling for help, but I'm not. I'm calling out my name. That's the joke."
"You mean, your name is "Help"??"
"Oh yeah. My mama, she was in labor for thirty-five hours straight with me. Last ten hours all she did was scream HELP! HELP! HELP! So that's what they name me."
He smiles, genteelly tips his hat and says. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. And your name is…?" And you know what? I'm almost too embarrassed to tell him mine, with the story of his name being so much better.
We talk briefly and after that, I throw money in Help's cup when I can. When I have time to I stop and we speak about life on the streets. He and I form a loose friendship. I discover that before he became a wino Help had shown much promise in school, at least until he dropped out in the 10th grade. Family problems forced him out of school whereupon he took a menial job in a warehouse. Soon thereafter the family lost their apartment and scattered. He was sixteen at the time and that's when he first became homeless. He's thirty one at this point. Fifteen years on the streets is a lifetime…or two…or three. Despite the vicissitudes he's faced, Help shows flashes of a bright inquisitive mind (as is evidenced by his noting a complete stranger's apparel, as he did with me) and has retained an amazing sense of humor in the face of such daunting life circumstances.
Toward the end of our friendship I find him one freezing, snowy winter night at his usual station on St Marks. It's bitterly cold, not a night to be outside for any reason. His shoulders are covered in snow and he's a shivering portrait of defeat. I go buy him a cup of coffee and give him a dollar. I ask him why he's not at the shelter, as the shelter vans typically come and round up street people on nights like this. He shudders at the thought, reporting that the shelter is the most dangerous place in New York City. That's quite a claim. He adds that it's a building full of unsupervised crackheads, murderers, maniacs of every shape and size. "They steal the damn shoes off your feet while you sleep. And what you gonna do with no shoes? Cut your throat over a damn dime. Or less." he mutters. He tells me he'd rather take his chances with the weather than go to the shelter. That's illuminating.
Help survives the storm. Springtime comes and he's back at his station with his sign and his signature cry, forever hurling his name upon the ears of a city too busy to listen.
After two years in New York I quit the cafeteria and take a job driving a cab, and so I see Help less. Eventually he disappears from the East Village scene. This is common for street people. Some go to prison, some start working a new neighborhood, some just give up and die. That's how it is.
So it's a few years later and I'm returning from dropping a fare up in the Bronx. I'm cruising down Second Avenue through Spanish Harlem when I catch a red light at the corner of 121st Street. It's past midnight and at this hour Harlem is the Wild West on steroids---a scary, deadly place. Certainly not the kind of place yellow cab drivers dare pick up fares. I get edgy sitting there, and so check my door locks, as kids have been known to throw lit M-80s into cars stopped at lights. Hilarious childhood pranks.
I'm warily eyeing the shadowy silhouettes on the side of the intersection, then just as the light changes, into the spray of yellow light cast by the streetlight, I see Help saunter into the crosswalk. He looks thinner and his sly expression has been supplanted by something approaching bewilderment. I roll down the window and shout HELP! at him. It takes a moment to register with him---someone is calling his name, rather than him doing it himself. He catches sight of me, then comes over to my window and greets me warmly, shaking my hand. I ask him what he's doing way the hell up in Spanish Harlem and he says he's lost. He'd gone looking for his family, but he just found a minute or two earlier that they all had moved to North Carolina. What a sad story! Wandering in Spanish Harlem looking for your family. I ask him if he wants a ride back downtown and he happily accepts.
We jump on the FDR and zoom south. Traffic is light so I only have a few minutes here to catch up with my friend, so I dive right in, asking him what he's been doing with his life. Not much has changed, he reports. Still homeless. He's now working the West Village, as he feels his routine has gone stale on the East side.
It's a quick ride down the FDR. He asks to be let off at Houston and Avenue D. When I stop, as he's getting out I ask him if he's ever thought about going to college or a trade school, getting an education so he can find a decent job. Get off the streets. I tell him he's smart enough and would probably do well in school. He gives it some thought, smiles wearily, then replies, "Oh, you know, I always wanted to go to college. But I just couldn't afford the intuition." With that the door closes and off he rolls into the night. That's the last time I will ever see Help.
And you know what? Help's right. The intuition costs so much more than the tuition.

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