Some recent comments about life on the street, and about homeless shelters, on what I consider perhaps the best and most important blog on WordPress, Dennis Cardiff’s “Gotta Find a Home” (http://gottafindahome.wordpress.com/ ), reminded me of a part of my own book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days. Since I haven’t posted any excerpts here in a long time, I thought I’d like to post that section here.
The section recounts a description–probably partially fictionalized where my memory of what David actually told me failed me, but, I think, accurate nevertheless–of a night David (the book’s hero) spent after leaving the hospital “against medical advice.” Here it is:
Swaying, he looked up toward First Avenue and then back down toward Tompkins Square Park. He had to get inside somewhere and get some sleep so that he’d have the strength to get himself set up in the morning. There was a shelter on 3rd Street, but even if he had a chance in hell of talking someone into letting him in this late he’d be up all night with cockroaches crawling on his face and crackheads and thieves roaming among the cots, looking for something they could sell or keep. The hospital, he told me, had spoiled him for all of the things he could have put up with as a junkie.
There was a bandshell in the park, but by then Sam knew that he had to be inside somewhere, safe and unmolested so that he could really sleep. It occurred to him that the subway station on Fourteenth and First was his best bet. It would be warm and if anyone bothered him it would probably be a cop, giving him a wake-up call by beating a nightstick on the wall next to his head. He could stretch out on one of the benches at the back of the station. And if there was a problem he could just jump on the L train and ride all night.
First Avenue looked warmer and brighter, somehow, than Avenue A, so he went that way, stopping often, his arms crossed around him so that the chills wouldn’t split his chest open. Passing NYU kids dressed up as bikers or junkies or punks, or young bankers downtown to drink and see the sights, all traveling in confused packs in and out of the little Polish-run bars and restaurants, he noticed that most ignored him or gave him a quick up-and-down look.
“Like I just crawled out of a manhole looking for money or drugs,” he put it. It made him feel safer to know that they were more afraid of him than he was of them—that they couldn’t see his weakness.
By the time he made it to the subway entrance he thought that he might die before he got downstairs. He was exhausted and sick to his stomach from shivering and not eating, and his chest felt like there was a fire inside. His legs were numb, and as he hung on to the banister and put one foot after the other down the stairs it was as if he was walking on crooked stilts.
The air inside the station was so thick and hot that it seemed he could grab a handful of it. There was no one down there except for a token-booth clerk, counting money.
This was the last obstacle. Sam went to the window of the booth, trying to look as earnest and respectable as he could, and waited until the clerk had finished counting the wad of ones in her hand. Eventually she looked up at him, expressionless.
“Hi,” he said. She lifted her chin a little. He smiled in his gentlest way (the eyes in the photograph, only a little more desperate, more calculating). “I was wondering if you could help me. I’m sick and I lost my wallet and I have to get across town or my wife is really going to worry. Can you just let me through the gate and I promise…”
“You got to pay your fare,” said the clerk, clearly, with a rhythm she obviously used to say the same thing a hundred times a day.
“I just told you, I don’t have my…”
“I just told YOU, you got to pay your fare.”
“Look, please just give me a break. I’m really sick. I can’t walk any more.”
“Pay your fare.” She went back to counting her money.
Sam felt that he might cry. He’d been arrested once for jumping a turnstile, and he’d spent the night in a bullpen so crowded that he couldn’t sit down, and stinking so much of piss that he didn’t want to. At the time, having been locked up once or twice before, he’d taken it pretty much in stride; that night he thought it might kill him. He started to walk back over to the stairs, just to sit, but someone was coming down. It was a teenage girl. He considered asking her for a token but he was afraid that the only thing that would come out would be a whine or a sob. The girl went to the token booth.
“Fuck it,” Sam whispered to himself, and he turned and quickly ducked under one of the turnstiles to the other side.
Behind him he heard, “Pay your fare, sir,” but he ignored it and walked to a bench at the end of the platform. The station smelled almost as bad as the bullpen but he didn’t care because he was going to sleep. He cleared some pages of the Post off of the bench, took his shirt off and made a pillow out of it, and lay down. He slept, as he put it, like a dead man.
There the memory ends, not with the image of Sam sitting across the table from me, reciting his story with the attention to detail of a man to whom nothing has happened in a long time, but with that last one, the picture that my mind supplied as illustration: Sam, viewed from a point far up the subway platform, curled, oblivious and half-naked, mouth slightly open and hair clinging to his damp, smooth forehead, on the bench nearest to where the track goes dark and curves away.