Lacy is a college student, young, from Connecticut and from money. Nice girl, but with a tough jaw. She’s 19. The students are all back now from holiday and so I saw her on the street. She was carrying a 35-millimeter camera by its huge lens, a nylon camera bag over one arm. She squats next to Leroy, aka Roy, who is a Broadway fixture. There has been scaffolding on this particular block for more than four years and Roy has found this to be ideal to his outdoor lifestyle. A cardboard case box, the kind that hold 24 cans of beer or soda so that they can be stacked, sits out in front of him to collect funds. He sits on a milk crate. There are four Duane Reade bags, the ones with handles, next to him, against the wall. Their contents are inscrutable. Lacy believes she will chronicle this outrage. A man sleeping and living on the streets, forced to live on coins from strangers. She sees him as homeless. One must be careful not to perpetuate the myth of the free-ranging homeless who by choice and temperament find a satisfying life out of doors. But one should also be aware that Roy, at least, embodies that myth. If Lacy wants to bring this man inside, out of the cold, she has picked the wrong target. She begins taking pictures. Roy grins like a fool. He straightens his shirt under his unfastened coat (one side of the zipper is missing from the coat) and realizes the buttons are fastened incorrectly, off by one. He unbuttons them all. For the camera, he sticks out his chest and pats his grey-speckled belly hair. With gloves on, it takes forever to re-button the shirt. Lacy is feverishly taking pictures. She thinks she might need more film. She gets everything. These are good. Very good. Now she is thinking to herself about buying the light meter she passed up when she bought the camera. The camera was $450. The lens was $625. The light meter is $140. The film was thrown in for free. I have seen this before. New students from around the country come to New York each year. New York University, Columbia University. They see a homeless person. They squat in front of the person, one foot flat on the concrete, a knee down on the other side. They often have cameras. They take photos. They ask questions. Some of these garden fresh kids take notes. This is what they’ve been reading about. This is the embarassment of the country. This is real. In Roy’s case, it’s a matter of choice. At least now, though not in the beginning. He moved to New York eighteen years ago to take a job an uncle had promised. The building burned, the uncle moved back to South Carolina with the insurance money, and Roy is still here. He began begging for something to do rather than for the money. Jobs have been fleeting and poorly paid and suspect. Roy says if he had all the paychecks he was owed he could put a down payment on an East Side condo. He sees himself above the can collectors who dig through the trash. He doesn’t ask for money. He just puts his box out. If people throw money in there, that’s their business. He can’t afford an apartment, of course. He’s been here so long that all of his friends are here. There’s nowhere else to go. There’s no reason to go. At least he can sleep on the streets, usually without being molested. In smaller towns it would never happen. Giuliani is only catching up to the other America: homelessness is vagrancy and vagrancy is against the law elsewhere. Roy has tried the shelters. Boring and somebody stole his things. Three good ink pens. A Metrocard with eight trips left on it. Roy spends hours each day at the subways stations, picking up discarded Metro cards and trying them each to see if they have a fare left on them. If he finds an unlimited card with time left, he goes to other stations all day collecting discarded cards to bring back and try at the 110th Street station. At the shelter, somebody took his good shirt, the one he wears to meetings. Roy has lots of meetings: meetings with social workers, meetings with police officers, meetings with various departments of the city, meetings with judges. Last summer, he had meetings in the hospital. Three boys from Riverdale had beaten him, leaving lumps like chestnuts on his head. Roy checked out of the hospital early. His bags were gone from the street, but Kim at the dry cleaning store and others had taken them until he recovered. They stank. Kim had to leave them on the fire escape. Kim gave Roy an unclaimed shirt from the rack. Roy thinks that’s funny: he could be wearing the 90-day unclaimed shirt of one of the very people that gives him money. Lacy leaves elated. These pictures surely are award-winners. She’ll be back, she tells Roy. “I’ll be here,” he says.
Posted January 16, 2000