For this weeks Red Dress Club the prompt was the word Charity. Merry Christmas everyone!
At first I didn’t notice the difference between Dave and the other homeless that tend to mill around the corner of 14th and Avenue B. The deli on the northwest corner with the red awning called Candy Brothers, La Isla, the Puerto Rican restaurant that is two doors west of the deli as well as the Kennedy Fried Chicken that is two more doors west are all open late and the four bars on the block all create a trifecta, prime begging ground for many of the homeless. People who have been drinking at the bars in the neighborhood are often generous either with food and change or both, especially late at night. I didn’t notice Dave’s difference because in New York it is easy not to notice at all.
Dave will sometimes stand to the right of the deli door asking for spare change saying, “Nope,” if you turn him down or if he thinks that you are going to. But most of the time that I see Dave he has a dust bin and broom in his hands and is cleaning up the corner. He will bag and sort the garbage in the trashcan, putting the recycling in its own piles. He sweeps the gutters of all debris including cigarette butts. The depth of his frenzy can easily be marked by how far down Avenue B is cleared of all garbage. The broom, dustpan and trash bags have been provided by Candy Brothers that feeds him sandwiches and sodas in return. He mutters to himself, but is never aggressive. While working he will occasionally glance up at a passerby but more often remains focused on the self-imposed task at hand.
This kind of behavior looks like schizophrenia to me and I ask my friend Marc who has lived in the neighborhood for twelve years if this is in fact the case.
“Yea. How’d you know that?” I shrug, not wanting at that moment to get into the long story of one of my stepmother’s and how she got sick with the same disease. Marc keeps talking, “His family is still in the neighborhood, they keep an eye on him. He apparently used to be a brilliant artist then the disease hit him hard. I’ve been giving him change for years, and I do mean years, like ten years and he still doesn’t know my name. He only ever uses the money for food or a soda, I’ve never seen him with a beer, or high, I mean I guess it might be hard to tell sometimes.”
Once Marc says that, I realize that he’s right. I’ve never seen him with a drink either and though Marc is right and it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between someone who is high on recreational drugs and someone who is tranquilized on meds for schizophrenia there is a difference and I would bet my last dollar that Dave is never high on anything that wasn’t prescribed to him.
I begin to look for Dave on the street as I am coming home for work and I see that a good number of people know him in the neighborhood, calling him by name and offering to buy him a sandwich or a soda, he doesn’t always say yes but often he does. His clothes are always worn and are either industrial, from the mental ward that I assume he is in and out of or from a shelter, but they are always clean. He in fact is always clean. I have only seen him actually sleeping on the street once or twice.
I am a little surprised when I see my partner Christopher give Dave actual cash, as a rule we don’t give cash directly to the homeless. When Christopher sees my slightly questioning glance he says, “He works hard and I respect that.” I can see that for whatever reason Dave hits an emotional cord in Christopher and I say nothing more. For all of his bravado Christopher is tender of heart.
We have lived here long enough now that I can see when Dave’s medication is working and when it isn’t. On a particularly hot disgusting New York City summer evening I see that Dave is in front of the deli and is more agitated than normal, he’s having a hard time standing still and is more twitchy than usual. He glances at me and starts to ask me for change, “Miss…” and then stops. He recognizes me as the woman who is always with the man who always helps him out but can’t remember if I do too. He turns to walk back to his safe spot.
“Dave,” he looks up at this name and smiles, an auto-response, “here.”
I have a pocket on the front of my purse where I throw in all the change that I get from stores. I usually sort it at home, quarters for laundry and the smaller change into a container that we turn in when we remember. I scoop everything out of the pocket and hand it to Dave. It is a good deal of change. He stands there for a second looking at his full hands and then back to me, he seems upset. An uneasy feeling washes across me as I remember that I had an extra bullet in my purse that I had popped out of the chamber the last time that I went shooting. “Shit,” I’m thinking to myself. As I look over the edge of his work worn dry hands I see that sure enough he’s looking at the bullet, which is a confusing enough item to explain to someone who is of sound mind.
“Oh, Dave! I’m sorry. Don’t worry, I’ll take that.” I reach very slowly and carefully and take the bullet out of the change and put it back in my purse. “I’m sorry, it’s not you, it is really there.” I say, not knowing if he can understand what I am trying to tell him. He nods and looks quite relieved once the bullet is gone. “Take care of yourself tonight,” I say trying to normalize the moment. He nods again.
Since then I noticed that he acknowledges me, but rarely speaks to me directly. It hurts me that because I was careless and scared him and that he remains frightened of me, even if he doesn’t remember why exactly. Now all I can do is watch from a distance. I find myself worrying when I don’t see him and I noticed the last time that I saw him that his hair is getting patchy, a side effect of the medication. Maybe I worry more now that I can do even less than I did before.
I am glad when Christopher and I meet after work for a drink one evening and he comes into our local bar saying, “Dave called me by name today!” I am glad that at least one of us can still reach out and help this man, who cannot help the circumstances that he is in. I haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks now but I sincerely hope that he is somewhere warm and safe for the Holidays as we all should be.