Jesus it’s cold. Mostly I don’t feel it, but after last night my butt is frozen to the stairwell and the three hats I have on don’t even take the edge off. I’m still tired when I wake, my cheeks pinched raw by the frosty morning air, my eyes crusted shut. It was a long cold night and it was too damn noisy to sleep properly.
I found my spot early, just after dark, tucked away in the thin line between two apartment blocks on a fire escape someone had forgotten to push back up. Just when I thought I was gonna drift off I was jolted awake by the bangs, about seven of them, like a car backfiring or something. Then there were the sirens - more than usual – and people shouting and running along the street. Try as I might I couldn’t ignore it. I opened my eyes and turned my head to the end of the alleyway. Blue flashing lights flickered up the road and bounced off the water-smeared walls and bulky shapes with jangling keys darted past. There was screaming – a woman. Something big must’ve kicked off alright, a shooting I guess. It all died down pretty quickly, besides, it had nothing to do with me. I make it a policy not to get involved in stuff that’s not my business. Once I’m hunkered down I don’t move until morning. It’s the only way to keep from freezing. Every night in winter I stow my most precious belongings on my lap, pull my sleeping bag up to my chin and then don’t move an inch til dawn. Not unless I really have to.
This part of town is usually quiet enough, even at this time of year, just three weeks short of Christmas when the world has gone seasonally insane and crowds fill the streets day and night. It can make you jumpy, all those extra bodies milling about. Accidents waiting to happen. It’s less frantic up here, the office parties all go downtown and the fruit loops and the junkies tend not to come up, the police are real hot on them in this neighborhood. If I can find the right spot, hidden from view, I can sleep safe and sound all night and be up early enough to catch the rich folks on their way into town. It’s not that they’re especially generous up here, though there’s a lot of money about (bankers, celebrities, folks that have everything they could want) but still, I can beg for hours and not even get a glance. Every so often I’ll get lucky, someone will remember the true spirit of Christmas and they’ll try to salve their conscience by digging deep into their pockets. If this happens I’m set up for the day, a couple of hot meals and a bottle, maybe even a bed someplace. Course, it doesn’t always happen. It didn’t happen yesterday; which is how come I’m waking up on a fire escape after a restless night, tired and cold.
I get up, stretch, and wriggle the pins and needles from my toes. I roll away my sleeping bag, stuff it into my biggest carrier, pick up the rest of my things and shuffle out of the alley and along the sidewalk to the corner of 71st Street and the park.
There are a lot of people about today. Too many and too early. It’s a little short of 7 but it feels like it’s well into rush hour. Everyone is going in the same direction - north along the park – like they’re being called by something. Entranced. I stand still to cough as the exertion of the day’s first steps catches up with my lungs. The pain in my sides is almost unbearable. It’s like this every morning. I suppose I should go to the ER but I don’t like hospitals. I’ve had friends on the street who didn’t make it out of hospital. People jostle me as they pass like they can’t see me; they send my shopping bags spinning so the handles twist like knives into the skin of my fingers. I did have a pair of gloves but they were stolen in the last shelter. I cough thick gunk up from my chest and splatter it onto the sidewalk. A man in a suit looks at me and tuts, then looks quickly away. I know what he’s thinking.
As I start to walk again I notice that nobody is talking. It’s eerie. Some folks walk together holding hands, some are carrying flowers. Their faces have a haunted look, like photographs of children in wartime. I walk along with them and for the first time in years I’m just one of the crowd; suddenly a part of something (even if I don’t know what it is yet). I can feel myself smile, using muscles that haven’t worked in months.
A woman crosses quickly in front of me, I don’t see her until it’s too late. She recoils as I crash into her. The impact knocks my bags from my hands, they fall at her feet, their contents spilling onto the floor.
‘Watch it mister,’ she hisses.
I look up from her spike heel as I try to gather my belongings. Her legs go on for miles and she’s real pretty, but her make-up is thick and dark roots are showing under her bleached blonde hair. There’s a hole in her black stockings, just below the hem of her leather mini-skirt, exposing a circle of bright white skin. She’s got a faraway spaced-out expression, looking over me across the street as if I’m not even there. I remember the type. The memory makes me smile.
‘Okay princess,’ I say, straightening up.
She stares at me as though she really is a princess and I’m a dog turd on her shoe. As she takes in my appearance her face is transformed by sudden anger. Her pretty blank features contort into ugliness. She narrows red-rimmed eyes into lizard slits.
‘Fuck off,’ she shouts, almost screams, ‘you stink!’
Her words echo like a shot through the still December air.
People stop and stare at us. I’m not part of the crowd anymore - now I’m a bum harassing a vulnerable woman. I know what they all think. I hunch my shoulders and drop my eyes to the sidewalk. She carries on shouting for a while then I hear her heels clomp away. I stay as I am until I’m sure she’s gone. When I look up no-one is paying any attention to me anymore; they are all intent again on their silent migration. I’m shaking to my boots but I take a deep breath and cross the street unhindered to where I can see Cyril Patel and his pretzel cart.