Songs of the street: The Only Living Boy in New York

Like a favorite childhood friend walking into the room out of the blue, a song I had not heard in years came on with, “Tom, get your plane right on time, I know your part’ll go fine…” In the blink of an eye I am back in the comforting embrace of Simon and Garfunkel’s, “The Only Living Boy in New York.”  Moments later, I’m breathing in, “Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where,” a not inaccurate description of life for a homeless kid on the street. Songs can make for some mighty fine companions.

There is a large aloneness to manage when you’re on the street, doesn’t matter your age. True, when you’re a teen and almost every other teen you see on the planet has a family they live with, you’ve an additional sharp edge to manage; the only living boy in New York.

The background chorus of the song, tear-producing for me in this recent listen, is the sound of angels. Simon and Garfunkel recorded multiple tracks in an echo chamber.

The song was a refuge when I was cold, or hungry, or a walking stench from not having bathed in a few days. It was a refuge when I knew I was going to break night because there was no place to go.

When the song came on it would fill  me up and carry me its entire length, breaking into sweet-shuffle strides when the chorus played, sending miracle-chills through this dancer’s spine. Life!

For the length of the song, I was a free.

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I Remember Homelessness

We didn’t call it homeless when I was out there, we called it living on the street. Same thing. When night, rain, sleet or snow fell, you had no sure place to go, and when winter sunk its teeth into your bones, everything got worse.  And then there was the never ending struggle to keep your stomach full and body clean. I received medical treatment twice for hunger pains. Imagine the pain you’d be in if someone set fire to your stomach. That’s about the feel of it. My time out there was a couple of years in the 1970s. But, once homeless, the fear that it can happen again never leaves you, at least it’s never left me.

The world’s view of you changes too. When I was in my early teens I danced a lead role with the Joffrey Ballet and was viewed as a child prodigy in dance. But, in 1969, when my aunt, grandmother and father died, in that order, in a matter of months, my mother placed me in reform school on a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) Petition, which, in those days, often meant a family saying to the court, I don’t want him, you take him. My world had changed, forever.

I was released to a half-way house a year later and then, when my mother wouldn’t take me back, I was given the choice, back to reform school or live on the streets. I chose the streets believing I was choosing freedom. I was wrong. Homelessness is its own from of brutal incarceration from society. It didn’t escape my notice that the very people who no doubt would applaud or did applaud me when I was on the stage at City Center now walked by me as if I was worthless, or, even worse, invisible.

Homelessness can strike at many who currently experience the possibility of homelessness as something that happens to others. It’s the it can’t happen to me syndrome which is, in my view, a normal and helpful syndrome that allows us to get up and take part in life. But the fact of the matter is this, homelessness, like violent crime and disease, doesn’t give a damn about syndromes, skin color, religion, ethnicity, belief-system, religious persuasion, gender, or age. I recently read a story about Queen Jackson, a 60-year-old Colorado woman who despite having worked for the state of Colorado, now finds herself homeless. To say that we live in a country that is too wealthy for homelessness and hunger to exist is both a statement of fact and spitting into the wind. Why this latter point? Because the cold hard truth is  a lot of people simply don’t care. Many willingly voice concern unless they’re actually called upon to act on it. Few will openly say they don’t give a damn, but, as they say, actions, and facts, speak louder than words: homelessness exists in a country where there is no humane reason for it. And a country in which some like to saunter about proclaiming their Christianity in chest-pounding terms when, more often than not, their proclamations of faith are rooted in deceit and greed.

Whatever one’s view of Jesus, he was kind and loving and compassionate and would be out there doing all he could to rid the entire bloody world of homelessness, of poverty.

Hunger is a harsh master

But the bottom line is, many don’t care. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has produced a well-researched report called the State of Homelessness in America 2011. If one has an iota of compassion in them a read of the report’s executive summary is a chilling  and heartbreaking experience. For me, it struck home in a deeply personal way when I read, “It is widely agreed upon that there is a vast undercount of the number of young people experiencing homelessness.” I was 17 when I was first in the street. And when you’re out there, you do what you have to do to survive; I lived for more than one week on several cans of dog food and a box of milk bones. Hunger is a harsh master.

The reality is, many don’t care and many in congress don’t care. You’ve got Republicans openly protecting the wealthiest 1% in the country from experiencing even a sliver of a tax increase while at the same time, food stamps and rental subsidies are being slashed across the country. And while the Democrats are more verbally supportive of the poor in this country, it’s an easy stance for them to take when they know there’s no chance of passing any real legislation would help the poor. It’s easy to voice support for something you know is not possible. I strongly suspect their support of the poor would change in tone if it looked like a bill helping the poor would require an increase in taxes on the 1%.

As Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig points out in his new book, Republic, Lost, money’s corrupting influence in Washington is a two way street.  The most commonly understood is the that big donors contribute to elected officials in both parties! in order to get their way, like keeping tax breaks and more. A form of blackmail, if you will. But, as Lessig points out, the blackmail (my word, not his) works both ways. Members of Congress will tell the big donors, if you don’t contribute handsomely to my campaign, I won’t protect your tax breaks.

And who gets crushed by all this, the American people, the disappearing middle class, and the poor, the homeless, the folks so many don’t give a damn about.

You could be next

I know that the more than 1,500 regular monthly readers of this are cut from the kind of cloth that does care, you wouldn’t be regular readers of this blog were this not so. And for those of you just stopping by, I hope you will care and help as well. Help at a food pantry and donate to a food bank, or reach out to the National Alliance to End Homelessness and find out how you can help.

Remember, when it comes to homelessness, you could be next.