Photo by LJ Mears
During the middle of my spring semester, I remembered the homeless man in front of the 21st street CTown. He was the poem in my poetry workshop. He was the protagonist of my memoir workshop free-write. I remembered my love for him. My professor loved him from the first paragraph.
I went to high school in Long Island City, LIC High School from 2006 to 2010. I hated it from the moment I hopped onto the over crowded Q39 bus in Ridgewood and waited for more than 10 minutes for the Q19A. Long Island City, adjacent to Astoria, bumping shoulders with a slew of projects and on the other side, over development. 4 to 12th period schedule made me get home at 6 pm, leaving me feeling tired and lethargic on a regular basis.
But then I made acquaintances, and a friend who lived a train stop away insisted that I give up on dragging myself onto the dreaded 39 and instead take the L to the N. Those trains didn’t delay me as much, and I had finally had company. Coming in second period in the fall and winter left my classmates and I trudging up 21st street in the dark. And that’s when I saw him.
Even sitting down he looked tall. Dark skinned with a huge coat and always sitting on a dark blue or black milk crate. And unlike all the homeless people that shuffled onto the train station platforms and held out their cups of change and hats and baskets chanting “Can anybody please help…” or “spare some change miss…” and “does anyone have a penny…” This homeless man would have none of that.
I walked by with my friend; the man zeroed in on us and called out.
“Hey… you wanna marry me, I got food stamps.”
Walking back to the train station in the afternoon from school would cause another outburst from him.
“Hey ladies, how about them food stamps.”
Some days he was there, and some days he wasn’t.
But I loved it when he was there, perched atop his pedestal, calling his wares to the prospective ladies.
Whenever a group of girls would happen to come by, he’d straighten up, smoothed back his hair, and called out;
“Hey there ladies, any of you wanna marry me, I got food stamps.”
I don’t know if he was actually homeless, or if he actually had food stamps and other government assistance. I also didn’t know if he smelled musty like a ton of the other homeless people in the subway. Whenever I remember him, I kick myself for not having the courage to go back and ask him his name.
Part of me admired that he didn’t gas himself up to be something that he wasn’t. He didn’t lie. He put out what he had to offer plainly along with the terms and conditions that came with doling out his love and financial security: marriage. I liked that he wasn’t afraid of saying he had food stamps. In high school admitting any sort of assistance was sacrilege. I remember hearing classmates insult each other with “yo momma’s on welfare”. Or things like “look at his sneakers, they’re hand me downs and they don’t match his shirt”. None of us were rich, but we pretended we were better than the student next to us, pretended that our parents weren’t having some financial issues, and there was that man, with more courage, honesty, and food stamps than any of us would ever have. We were petty and “bougie”…he was not.
During parent teacher conferences, he would call out to student’s mothers and ask if the nice lady in the red coat would like a heart full of love, and a couple of food stamps.
I don’t remember if it was our second or third year, I just know that it was dark and cold and very early. Converged with a hoard of students, we made our way past the Dunkin Donuts, the drunken man with no pants curled up in a doorway, and the bodegas. And then there was CTown. Mr. Food-Stamps straightened up and serenaded us to “The Pinky and the Brain” theme song.
One day I swore that I heard him humming the Pokemon theme song. He used words like “audacity” and “negligence”. He winked and smiled, waved and beckoned, but I never saw anyone take him up on his offer.
After class one day, I was heading back to the N train with my two classmates. We passed by CTown again and Mr. Food- Stamps called out to us.
“Hey, you guys want to see a picture of my ex?”
All our head whipped to the right in unison. I peered over my friend’s shoulder to get a better look at the little rectangle he was trying to take out of his shirt pocket.
“See… it’s my ex.”
He showed us a flashcard with a big black letter X. I leaned on my friend and howled. Part of me wanted him to have an ex, a side story of the one woman who wanted her prince to be a simple man with a castle made of milk crates, and crazy wealthy in an abundance of government assistance. But then again, I loved him for being insane yet freaking brilliant.
It’s been ages since I’ve been past my high school or the parks around it. The last time I went to LIC it was to see the piers and the skyline. I’ve been to upper areas of Queens. I’ve even been to transit hubs like the Queens Plaza, a mere few stops away from 21st and Broadway. I wonder if next time I’m about to transfer to the 7, I’ll just walk to the other side of the elevated platform and make my way to N. The train will stop on 21st and I’ll walk down to the street, past the Brazilian restaurant if it’s still there, past the café if it’s still there, past the bodegas and delis. I’ll cross over to the CTown and make my way to the milk crates that are always stacked on the side. I wonder if he’s still there. I need to find out, I’m a reporter now, a far cry from the shy editor for my high school’s newspaper, and I’m still too nervous to go. I’ll be too disappointed if he’s not there to propose to me.