(Orginally published in the 4/10 issue)
Drifters, dreamers, mountain men, schemers.
Romantic ideals of life on the range planted themselves deep within my youth and had blossomed since. Solitary field trips began and ended with kicking a pebble down an empty road, careful though not to step on the sidewalk cracks. Stalking ice cream men and raiding treetops of their nests were some other droll hobbies of mine.
Not much thought or contemplation went into these activities. Not much has changed, I said to myself while lying raveled in a flimsy baby blue blanket, shivering myself sleepless on the bare floor of the 8th and Market Subway Station on Monday, March 5. The Homeless Hilton this was not.
A small, but persistent draft kept me awake and alert to every game of keep-away a passerby had played with his or her eyes. These quirky thoughts soon were quelled, not at the reproaching of workmen or at the mercy of the nibbling cold, but by something far more potent – the stink of my gloves.The subway stench clung to my gloves, somehow leaving a faint yet ominous brown stain on the glove’s face.
The gloves came off at that moment, and in the next, they were back on; I suddenly
remembered why I was wearing gloves, thanks to the 18-degree morning, foreboding of a far cooler Code Blue night to come. I stood and walked up the stairs of the subway, careful not to trip over the bags hanging below my eyes. The moment I surfaced, something sharp stung my eyes – sunlight. I rubbed my dilated eyes red, removing preconceptions of drug activity among homeless people and a little crust, too.
“Now what?” I asked myself as I kicked glass shards down bustling intersections, making conscientious efforts to ignore society as it was doing to me. However, there was just too much of it to look past.
I returned to the McDonald’s located at Broad and Arch streets to buy a large cup of coffee. Interestingly enough, people don’t appear as anxious around you when you show you’re able to afford a $0.69 cup of java. The coffee cooled and the day passed without much occurrence. I forwent touring the entire city for more familiar areas, like North Broad Street. I paced a three-mile stretch before stopping
in front of a woman hunkered down by a Lehigh rowhouse. Stretching a bubble coat over her knees and her exiguous sundress, the woman now resembled a bell in both shape and shake.
“It’s been real tough,” Tamika Dawkins, 34, chattered. Dawkins said her boyfriend left their shared apartment three weeks prior, forcing the landlord to evict her once he saw that she was not the breadwinner. The life-long Philadelphian said she expected to be off the streets soon, or once McDonald’s reviewed her part-time job application.
Rooming with her family in the interim is not an option, she said, unwilling to elaborate.
She said she danced with drugs before.
“I did at one time, but I’ve been doing good, so . . .” We wished each other luck finding shelter – or an outreach van. I headed south to familiar Center City grounds and she stayed put, shivering. On the way there, I came upon Checkers,
located at Broad Street and Girard Avenue,
and realized just how poor I really was – I couldn’t afford a dinner at Checkers.
I schlepped my backpack a little further until finding something within my budget: Dollar Value had a sale on cheddar cheese crackers. With $1, I invested into future breakfasts’, lunches’ and dinners’ worth of crackers.
Patting myself along the way, I hurried into a near vacant Homeless Hilton, aka Market East Station – the same Homeless Hilton that was disemboweled a night earlier by police. The regulars, as I knew them, had checked out, leaving me alone with a dozen disheveled strangers and trainspotters.
Still, with about four hours of sleep in the last 48, I couldn’t resist the warmth of the benches – or risk leaving the area and locking myself out for the entire night. Sleep could wait, however, when I overheard a flirtatious conversation involving two estranged men sitting behind me. While the homeless thirty-something was clearly into it, the backward-hat-wearing twenty-something looked like he was waiting for his book to transport him.
“True meaning isn’t in a book, it’s in yourself,” the pseudo-charmer said with all possible aplomb, trying to get him to open up. A man approached me, holding crumbled-
up drug prescriptions and was in need of money. Before I could recommend a good banker, he moved on and made his pitch to the odd couple behind me. No time for the man to even finish his delivery, the thirty-something interrupted and stripped down any code talk for something more blunt: what kind of drugs do you need? The man was flustered for a minute, scanning
to see whether this was a sting by an undercover cop. The dealer passed the test.
“But if I give you my needle, how am I going to shoot up?” he lilted. Such talk made the hat-wearing man – who didn’t appear homeless – uneasy and he left to the equivalent of wolf whistles at his back. The scene soon cleared out and it was late enough to reason that everybody left in the station intended on staying the night.After catching two winks and a snore, I was prodded awake at the end of an officer’s stick at about midnight.
“C’mon. Let’s go,” the officer said.
The situation didn’t seem so dire until I was caught in the cold. I kept a lookout for any outreach vans as my feet instinctively lead me into the nearest 7-Eleven. My two-recourse checklist was down to one and I only needed a whiff of my gloves to remember what the subway smells like.
Eitherway, I knew I couldn’t stay in 7-Eleven all night and headed underground to 8th and Market Subway Station.
My patch of wall was still available, but not for long.
On the most unfriendly night, with the wind-chill in single digits, the cops were putting the homeless back on the streets once more.
I had no place to turn; that literally was my last resort. On the slow walk out, I realized I was not alone.
The drug dealer accompanied me out and followed my aimless meandering. My back was arched and rigid, and I felt more fragile than an iPod Nano.
Because he was such a nice guy, he suggested taking me to a diner or a hotel so I could warm up, an offer I could refuse and did – twice. Next he wanted to know whether I did any drugs. I felt this was a good time to tell him I was a Temple student doing a journalistic piece on drug dealers who prey on the desperation of confused homeless people. He left me alone at that point.
I continued on with my plan, hopping from one convenience store to another, fully expecting to flag down an outreach van at some point. Only later would I discover that no more than two outreach vans are responsible for an estimated 4,000 homeless people during Code Blue late-nights, according to Kristen Edwards, program manager of Project H.O.M.E.’s outreach coordination center.
Alternatives were nil, and I gave thought to ending the project early and heading back to my Allegheny Avenue apartment, about three miles north of my current location, City Hall. I walked up the median of Broad Street, hoping the police would stop me and – who knows – maybe give me a lift.
Because the wind was snapping southward,
I moonwalked for a good distance and past a white Dodge van, cursing it and the system for allowing people to wander in harsh, fatal conditions. The van caught up and passed me, pulling over by an upcoming traffic light. I walked past it again and watched a passenger roll down the window.
“Pretty cold out, eh?” the driver asked with an atypical greeting, one I hadn’t expected from an outreach worker. I walked closer and just waited to be let in the back of the van.
“So wait, are you homeless?” he asked, another ominous question.
The passenger propped open the door, drawing full attention to the fact that I was looking at a transsexual. “Come on, we’ll give you a ride to your apartment,” the balding driver said.
I stalled and looked blankly at them, slowly backpedaling away from the door.
“There’s enough room next to her,” he said, which was probably the most disconcerting
aspect of our conversation, lest I forget
this creepier line: “Are you afraid of us?” That just about sent me sprinting toward
Temple, specifically to the 7-Eleven on Liacouras Walk. Once in, I bought a large cup of cappuccino to last me the rest of the walk home. Just when I was about to head back outside, I veered to its unusual dining area and plopped down in a booth.
With half the cup already gone, I made sure to make the other 12 oz. of cappuccino last the night, nursing it during the hours I was not sleeping.
Steve Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.