George Isn’t Homeless

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10/12/2008

Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211

Neighborhood: Across the River, Manhattan

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“Hi George,” I said, with a wave, as I rushed toward the subway. George, who was sitting in his low-to-the-ground folding chair at his usual post in front of the liquor store, sat up bolt straight, as if I had touched him, giving him a shock of static electricity, and said with some outrage, “How do you know my name?” Despite his fierceness, he seemed truly frightened. I tried to be reassuring, “George, you told me your name, don’t you remember?” “I did?” he said, suspicious, giving me the squint eye. “Yes, George, you did,” I assured him again. He calmed down, settled back into his chair. But he gave me a look that let me know he would be keeping his eye on me. Maybe he had forgotten to take his meds—if he even took meds. I was sad to see George was having a bad day and that my attempt at a friendly greeting had fueled some paranoid torment that was nonetheless very real to him.

I have known George since I moved to the neighborhood—Williamsburg, Brooklyn—in 1998. He is out on the street most days, sitting in his folding chair—sometimes in front of the liquor store on Lorimer Street and sometimes in front of the Optimo convenience store just across the street on Grand. When I first moved to the neighborhood it was an outpost just off the second L stop. Grand Street, where I still live, was, and to some extent still is, a sort of a line in the sand between the Italian neighborhood—replete with Madonna statues, aging wise guys and aluminum siding—and the Puerto Rican neighborhood south of Grand—where the building facades are brick and people sit out on the sidewalk playing cards or listening to music on hot days. Though the neighborhood has become more fluid, and the demographics have been somewhat transformed by gentrification and a rash of new condos, ten years ago this line was very strictly observed—the Italians stayed on their side and the Puerto Ricans on theirs, with the exception of occasional skirmishes. George was a border-dweller, occupying a post on the margins of two worlds, but he didn’t belong to either, being neither Italian nor Puerto Rican but African-American and therefore somewhat out of place here. I had no idea why George chose to bivouac on this particular corner. It wasn’t clear what connected him to this neighborhood, other than occupation of a patch of sidewalk, or how historical or deep that connection might be.

I assumed George was homeless; I never saw him on the street at night, but I had no idea where he slept. He wore casual clothes—jeans, t-shirts or flannel shirts, but was mostly put together and never looked dirty. Though, occasionally, some small detail would be off, like he wouldn’t be wearing socks. He projected a persona that was alternately large and formidable or small and vulnerable, and his scale seemed largely a function of his mental state on any given day. He was a tall man, over six feet, and appeared bear-like when he wore a puffy winter jacket, which he sometimes did regardless of the weather. Other days, wearing a thin t-shirt and jeans that were too big for him, he looked frail and old. I had no idea how old, but I suspected older than he looked, maybe in his sixties—and I worried about him when it was cold or snowing. But he would disappear when the weather was bad, so I assumed he went to a shelter somewhere.

I have passed George on the street several times a day, most days, for the last decade. Wearing his signature knit cap or bandanna, he sits in his chair, watches, listens to the radio, sips from a tiny bottle of vodka, and occasionally chats up or calls out to passersby. I am always happy to see him. Often he’s laughing out loud at something or looking as if he’s about to laugh, but not in any crazy-seeming way; he just seems to see the humor in things, especially the constant tide of Brooklynites that flows across his corner en route to and from the subway. Sometimes he will hold out his hand expectantly, rub his fingers together, and say, in a languorous drawl that is more south than north: “Gotta little something for me today, Baby?” His tone, which often makes his pitches irresistible, is never desperate or pleading, but more cajoling and teasing, and somehow promising that giving him money will likely be the most fun I have all day. Sometimes I hand over some change or a dollar bill, and sometimes I say, “Sorry George, not today”—to which he replies, casually, disinterestedly, and with no hard feelings, “O.K. Baby, maybe next time.” Mostly though, he doesn’t ask for money. Sometimes he will just greet me, “How you doin’, Baby?” Or to my boyfriend, a tall man, whom George always seems especially excited to see, he might call out, “Hey there, Big Guy!” or “Chief!”—followed by series of cackles that indicate he gets a lot of pleasure out of using these made-up names. And sometimes he just stares off into space in a sort of catatonic stupor, seemingly unaware of anything around him but intently focused on something troubling in the distance.

Once I saw George chase a teenage boy down Lorimer Street with a two-by-four. I admired something in this action, but I am not sure what exactly. Maybe it was his exhilaration, his absolute domination of his corner, his unwillingness to yield any ground to business owners, cops, hipsters or smart-aleck kids. I had never seen George move so fast—or move at all. It inspired a sense of awe. I wasn’t afraid for the boy; I knew George wouldn’t hurt him (or at least I was pretty sure). But it did give George a dimension of menace or at least unpredictability. He was a warm, gentle man, but he wasn’t always himself. I tell all this to my boyfriend, who says that it was he who saw George give chase with a two-by-four. I am startled by the profoundly mysterious mechanisms through which I made the story my own and the way it had so thoroughly, so insidiously, invaded my own memory of George.»

In some way, the borrowed story speaks of the way I distance myself from George. As much affection as I have for him, as much as seeing him makes me happy and reassures me that he is o.k. and his absences make me anxious, I have some apprehension that conversations with him might be destabilizing for me and I keep some distance. George conjures people for me. My mother was an alcoholic and had spent a short time living on the street; and, being a small child living with my grandparents, I never saw her during this period. I also connect George to mentally unstable people I have known, especially a close college friend who had suffered a schizophrenic break. He once made me a sandwich from dandelions he picked in vacant lots, which I ate with some trepidation. He would confide in me about the voices he heard and his secret fears, because, he said, I was like him—we were both underdogs. I liked talking to Rick—he was smart and funny, and his insights often struck me as piercingly true—but afterwards I often experienced a sort off-kilter feeling that would stay with me for hours in which all the angles of reality didn’t quite seem to line up. It was scary because I felt how remarkably permeable that boundary is between sanity and insanity.

I have had very few conversations with George over the last ten years, maybe a half dozen, but all memorable. I learned he had once been a security guard, and I tried to imagine him putting on a uniform every day and going to work; it was hard to conceive. I pictured him chasing people around with two-by-fours. I wondered later if maybe he had worked in the neighborhood, if that was his connection; but I never asked him. In what was probably the longest conversation I ever had with him, just before the election in 2004, I was leaving Optimo with the Sunday paper under my arm. I think George responded to an image or a headline on the front page and we started talking. He expressed great enthusiasm for his candidate, George Bush. We talked about Iraq and George’s belief that Bush was going to straighten some shit out over there and get all those terrorists. I asked him what he thought Bush would ever do for him—a poor, disabled, black man living on the streets of Brooklyn. He told me he liked Bush’s style, liked his instincts and his decisiveness—and that he didn’t trust Kerry, who struck him as shifty. I couldn’t hide my exasperation, which made George laugh. He liked that he had gotten a rise out of me. For months after the election was over he good-naturedly teased me about this, saying things like “How about that George Bush!” and laughing to himself when I passed.

For all his many moments of disconnection, George had a vice-like memory when his mind would seize upon a certain detail. Once George asked me for money and I told him that I had a jar of change at home that I would give him. He got very animated and wanted to know exactly how much change might be in the jar. I told him maybe four or five dollars. He wanted to know—was it mostly quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies? He wanted to know everything I could tell him about the jar, any details that might make it more tangible. I kept forgetting to bring George the jar, and he would remind me every time I saw him. Weeks went by. Once I remembered, but George wasn’t there. It was too much change to lug around with me all day. Though George was generally very casual about money, he would demand to know each time I saw him when I was going to bring him this change. Finally, having failed George yet again, I asked him if he would accept a five-dollar bill instead. He mulled this over, seeming to take a moment to calculate which was the better deal—the change or the bill—but Abraham Lincoln settled the matter for him.

Once George asked me for money on a day I was feeling particularly broke, and I told him no. Because he asks for money so rarely, I felt I owed him an explanation. I said, “George, I am really sorry, but you know, I am a student and money is a bit tight for me these days.” He was sympathetic and seemed to feel bad that he had asked me for money. “Look, Baby, don’t worry about it,” he said, “I shouldn’t even be asking you for money. Look.” He pulled out a disability card from his wallet, “I’m doing alright,” he said, “I get a disability check from the government every month.” I was surprised. All these years I had known him—five or six at this point—I had assumed he had no resources. He continued, “I live with my sister; she takes care of me.” “Where does your sister live?” I asked. “In Manhattan,” he said. I was relieved to know that someone loved George and took care of him—if it was it true. Another revelation: George took the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn most every day to come and sit on this corner as if it was a job or a mission. What brought him here every day to the corner of Lorimer and Grand Streets? I didn’t ask; George kept talking. Lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and leaning in closer, he said, “I got something for you.” He told me that he had a special talent, that he could see lottery numbers in his mind. He said that he had seen one today—and that this number was for me. He opened his wallet and handed me a small scrap of paper on which he had neatly written a number. Giving me this number seemed to make George really happy. I took it but didn’t buy a lottery ticket. I carried George’s gift in my wallet for months. It made me feel lucky.

Melissa Dunn is an editor and writer living in Brooklyn. She is formerly an editor at Flash Art International as well as Phaidon Press, and has taught American literature at the Pratt Institute.

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