About a week ago I noticed what appeared to be a perfect nest in the empty lot behind our house. The only difference between this nest and a bird’s nest was its size. It’s bigger than an aboveground pool. It was constructed by a human being.
Of course I found the nest really amusing. I made mental notes how it changed from one day to the next. One day it’d be empty, the next it’d have a red blanket and the next day a bunch of empty vodka bottles and big black trash bag. I even wrote a song about the hobo nest and sang it to Emory. I showed Emory the nest and told him that as long as his father or I was alive he’d never find himself in that position.
The nest by itself was really quite funny. Even when the owner of the nest showed up late one night and began yelling, it was funny. At that point he was nothing more and an irate, drunken voice. We pictured one of Greenpoint’s many, many drunks. There are just so many of them living here. (Seriously, if you were to walk down Manhattan Avenue or through Mcgolrick Park on any given day, at any given hour, you’d see at least a dozen of these men and women. There are more of them living here than anywhere else I have ever been. And for the life of me I cannot figure out why. Greenpoint even puts Washington, DC to shame.)
Last Friday night he passed out and was rudely awoken by the jubilant sounds of the bachelorette party next door. He began screaming obscenities at the girls. They were skinny dipping in the aboveground pool out back. His ranting completely cancelled out the squeals coming from the women. Toby watched from our window and when he told me about it the following morning the both of us cracked up laughing. He said, “You have to be really down and out to tell a bunch of naked polish girls to keep it down so you can sleep in a nest of sticks.” And I found that statement brutally funny.
But then Monday morning came and I was finally able to put a face to the nest and all the drunken belligerence.
I watched him clean up the trash that lay around his nest. He deliberately picked up each and every piece of garbage and put every last morsel into a black trash bag.
I called Toby.
“The hobo is here.”
“Yeah. Have you checked your camera? I took some shots this morning while he was sleeping. I thought you might be interested to see who’s been living there.”
“Yeah, I am looking at him right now. He’s cleaning up. And it’s not all that funny anymore.”
We sat there in silence and I watched him pick up more trash from the parameter of his nest. He had done more for the environment in those five minutes than most New Yorkers do in an entire year.
“Is there someone I can call?”
“Not the cops. They won’t do anything. Even if they do show up, they’ll just throw him out.”
“How about 311?”
“You could try that.”
I hung up the phone and watched him finish cleaning. He put the trash in the bag and the cans and bottles in a small shopping bag. And then he walked toward the street and stopped a couple passing by. They were collectors – the folks who wheel carts around brooklyn and collect (steal?) recycling from our trash cans to make a couple of bucks. He handed the couple the recycling he had collected. And under different circumstances I would have found the exchange heartwarming.
Yesterday the guy had a friend over. And then proceeded to drink until the point of absolute oblivion. I have no idea where the alcohol came from or how they managed to buy it, but they had at least two bottles of booze. They were visibly drunk and screaming at one another. (The sound of stray, feral cats and drunk hobos has become my daily soundtrack.) When I told Tobyjoe about the friend and all the yelling he said, “Maybe someone got too close to his hobo eggs.” And I laughed.
But it wasn’t really funny.
Like the time we watched an alcoholic collapse in the street during a seizure, face down into a gutter at 9 AM on Bedford Avenue and a couple of people watching nervously chuckled.
That wasn’t particularly funny either.
And the time another local drunk decided that if his mother wouldn’t turn on the AC he’d cool off another way. He stole the keys to her minivan, got into the parked car, and passed out beneath the cool air. And when the van finally ran out of gas and the AC inevitably died, the drunk cooked himself to death. It was the hottest week of 2006. His mother thought he was on another drinking binge. But by the time she realized he was missing, the smell had already permeated the street. And as the story excitedly spread throughout the neighborhood and people covered their truly horrified smiles with their hands re-realizing that their very worst days were far better than his very best, well, that wasn’t really all that funny either.
I’m not going to get all PC and write about all the things I’d like to do in order to help this man and the countless others just like him. I’m not going to write about how much I care or how this sort of thing keeps me up at night. Because it really doesn’t anymore. I’m not going to write about how every day that I continue to live here my threshold for tolerating human suffering changes. I’m not going to talk about how numb I’ve become or how tired I am. And if there are any other New Yorkers reading this, perhaps you can relate. There’s not much that can be done for this man. Like myself, you’ve probably had delusions of grandeur before, maybe even made a call or two. It doesn’t take long to realize that our local law enforcement – even those whose job it is to help people like him – feel as hopeless as we do. Sure, you can give these people some cash for food and they’ll spend it on a bottle of vodka or a bag of crack. You can give them your leftovers from dinner and sometimes they throw it back at you because that’s not what they wanted. You can make a phone call and deal with a bunch of bureaucratic red tape and then no one comes out anyway.
Eventually those bubbles of grandeur get popped. It may take months. It may take years, but eventually you stop making the call.
And for those of you reading this who live somewhere less urban, I probably seem pretty callous right about now, cruel even, heartless. I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise, even if I had the energy you probably wouldn’t believe me. It all sounds so damn trite when I hear it written in my head. I have read it on blogs a thousand times before – ways we’re going to change the world, point fingers at where everything went wrong and whodunit – and nothing changes. (Armchair politics? Isn’t that what it’s called? Guilty as charged.) It reads like pure regurgitated bullshit and I’m sick of regurgitating bullshit.
So, you won’t find any of that here. Not today. I’m not going to pretend. Instead, I’ll just tell it like it is, like it has been since the day I moved to Greenpoint.
We have a man living in our backyard. He’s built a nest out of sticks and bushes. He’s sick with alcohol (or lack thereof) and will most likely die sometime in the next couple of years. And if he’s lucky someone will notice he’s gone before he starts to smell. But if it’s the smell that leads someone to him, I do hope that they care more about the fact that a man is dead and less about how they’re going to deal with getting rid of the smell.
Nope. None of this particularly funny at all.