Parks are an oasis in the concrete desert that is NYC. Thompkins square park is home to an eclectic group including East village punksters and gothic types, Chinese ladies who await free food handouts from the Church, dog owners who frequent the dog runs, homeless drug addicts and homeless chess players. There is a corner of the park that has tables with chess boards engraved into their surfaces. This is where I met James.
There was an openess and kindness to James which made me curious. I wasn't certain he was homeless. His clothes were clean and ordered apart from a top pocket that was closed with a safety pin. He was sitting at the table with his backpack by his side and the chess pieces set up on the board. He told me it would be two dollars for a game. I was surprised to see a book resting on the table: "Ideology and Insanity- By Dr. Thomas Szsaz". Was he really reading this? A chess game would surely provide an opportunity to share conversation and learn about what it's like to be homeless in NYC.
Thomas Szsaz is an American Psychiatrist who has spent his life arguing against the notion of mental illness. He is considered a left wing lunatic in Psychiatric circles. I was compelled by his writings from day one of my training.
James kindly agreed to turn the chess timer off so we could play a more leisurely game. I warned him that I was not a competitive chess player. He was obliging. There were so many things I wanted to ask him. In all my previous visits to New York I had wondered how homeless people survive in New York during the Winter. How did he become homeless? I had to respect the fact that we had only met. We bantered a little and the game finished quickly. He offered me another game "on the house".
James grew up in South Carolina, a single child to two parents who were deceased. Alone in the world, he referred to himself as 'just a poor man who doesn't know too much". I thought that anyone who can survive on the streets of New York with no money must have a unique kind of wisdom. The next game was ready to be played. "You wanna be black or white?". It was a question that resounded beyond its superficial implication. What could I answer, a white, upper class woman with all the opportunity in the world opposite this black, homeless man who lives in the hope of better days. "I'll be white," I replied.
As the game continued our conversation broadened and moved into more personal spaces. We were playing the game of navigating around each others stories, a question by me, a question by him. "How do you survive in this city James, I mean besides a few dollars from people like me who pass by?".
His story unfolded and I was being pulled into the unfathomable world of a homeless man in NYC. "I'm an artist", he claimed. I was skeptical. He lifted his blue, worn out backpack onto the cement seat and pulled out a bag of crocheted hats. "I crotchet hats and sell them to people for 20 dollars". He removed the safety pin from his pocket and fixed up the final knot off his most recent creation. "How did you learn how to do
that?", I asked half in disbelief of the seeming contradiction between this hardened homeless New Yorker delicately crocheting hats.
"I read a book once and just started making them. A guy I met the other day put an order in but I haven't been able to find him since I finished it."
Plato really did uncover a universal truth when he claimed that necessity is the mother of invention.
"How do you survive during Winter in NYC?", I continued.
"You survive on very little sleep in NYC. You get used to being tired. If it's a really cold night sometimes I might go to a shelter but I don't like those places."
We continued to talk and I learned that James has an Aunt who lives in Boston and works in the IT world. When he gets enough money together he goes there to have respite from the street. Although she constantly hassles him about his life and asks him why he hasn't sorted himself out yet, the comfort or a room a bed and a television outweighs her grudging.
At the end of our game I bought a hat and asked how I could find him again for another game of chess. He pulled out a mobile phone and told me that there are hidden outdoor electricity points in midtown where he goes to charge his prepaid phone. Sometimes he could be found through his mobile. He also has an email address and and post box in Soho, around the corner from where I live. He went to Boston but we are in contact through email.