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Stephanie Gertler Headshot

On the Street Where She Lives

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The woman makes her home in the doorway of the church on my street. She sits on post office crates, and is surrounded by cloth and plastic bags filled with her belongings. I have seen her bathe in the fountain on the next block. I have never seen her sleep. Most of the time, she writes in a notebook. Once I watched her, and saw that she writes with symbols reminiscent of hieroglyphics. There was nothing resembling words. Her drawings are small, and executed with deliberation and diligence. Often, she sings -- gospel -- in a voice that resonates down the tunnel of the narrow streets here in lower Manhattan.

I wonder if, as a child, she sang in a choir. If once she dreamed of being a singer. Yesterday, when I got off the subway in the 100-plus degree heat, I heard an echoed clapping. As I walked toward my apartment, the sound came closer and louder, and there was the woman, dressed in layers of gauzy cotton clapping her hands and dancing wildly in the middle of the street which was closed to traffic. It was one of the few times I have seen her not sitting. She seemed oblivious to the heat -- agile and ageless. I have never heard her ask for money or food. She appears to be well-fed, if not robust, and typically has something to eat newly wrapped in aluminum foil, and a bottle of water or soft drink. I would imagine that the local restaurants (and there are many) bring her sustenance.

I grew up in Manhattan on the Upper East Side where the homeless (a term unused back then) were oddities in the 1960's and 1970's, and quickly carted off lest the neighborhood be "sullied." In other areas of New York City -- Times Square, The Bowery, near the old Madison Square Garden -- what we then called "bums" or "hobos" wandered the streets and slept in doorways. They were more than predominantly male, and most of them looked aged. Of course, when you're a child, everyone looks aged. I remember the Sundays when my father drove the family in his Cadillac, turning off the FDR Drive onto Houston Street and locking the doors with a flourish, the automatic locks snapping down like prison gates.

"Bowery bums," he explained, as I gazed out the car window. "Most of them are veterans or were journalists during World War II. They've lost their way, but then again you never know. You have to be careful."

Our destination was Chinatown for trinkets, and then a stop at Katz's Delicatessen for a hot pastrami sandwich and a Cel-Ray Soda. Clinging tight to my mother's hand, we quickened the pace as we walked to and from the car. I was both fascinated and terrified by this other world, and eager to get back to the sanctuary of not only the Cadillac, but the Upper East Side.

The city's homeless now transcend both age and gender. Although they are ubiquitous in Manhattan, I am not inured to their presence. I have made so many calls to 911 when concerned that someone is not breathing that I am wondering if 911 has me listed as a "crank." Just the other day on Mulberry Street, a man lay on the corner, swathed in rags, the side of his face pressed against the hot pavement, his bare feet filthy -- and none of the telltale signs that the corner might be his home (shopping cart, bags, blankets, plastic cups). I stopped (yes, at a safe distance) to see if his chest was going up and down. I couldn't tell, and called emergency. I waited a while, and no one came. I called again, and they said that someone was on the way. Passersby walked around him, barely glancing down, reminiscent of the scene in Midnight Cowboy when the unconscious man lies on the street in front of Tiffany's. The neighborhoods once notorious for human debris have been cleaned up. Times Square is a mall: It's misleading. The homeless have merely been cleared out of Times Square so the tourists have a different impression.

A wave of unidentifiable emotion came over me when I discovered that the joyous clapping and dancing came from the woman at the church who seemed undaunted by the oppressive heat. I wondered where she was from, if she had a family anywhere anymore, and what she was like as a child. I wondered what happened to her along the way. Was she ever in love? Did she ever have children? Was her decline insidious, born from trauma, born from mental illness? Is she even remotely aware of the men in suits and ties, and the women in their black pumps and narrow skirts who disappear into apartment and office buildings and dine in the windows of restaurants across the street from where she lives?

Joseph O'Neill writes in his novel, Netherland, that once we have lived in Manhattan, it is not only difficult to leave, but nearly impossible not to miss it if you do. I used to believe that more than I do now, and yet there is a part of me that remains nearly addicted to this city despite what is a cacophony of the harsh, pleasant, comforting, miserable and frightening. The city can assault you with its gloom and lift the spirits within a block's walk. It is a film noir, and so black and white, with eight million stories, indeed.

I wonder what would happen if I tried to speak to the woman who lives in the church doorway -- or perhaps her world is best left to both her imagination and mine. At least downtown here, nestled in the church doorway, she appears to be safe, and appears to feel at home.

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