The Doctor From Norfolk, Virginia

by

01/20/2002

300 west 29th Street ny 10001

Neighborhood: Clinton

During the summer, approximately 25 to 35 students occupy the brownstone at 305 W. 29th St. and Eighth Avenue, a few blocks from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. I’m living on the third floor, flanked by the kitchen and the staircase; paying a weekly rent of about $200 for a single room with a view of the cigarette butts on the roof and the occasional drug deal on the corner of Ninth.

From my neighbor’s window, you can usually see people in the street, spraying themselves and their mangy dogs with the hose at the corner store. The Mexican flower vendor will let you use it for five minutes if you give him a dollar, but that’s only when the owner, Mr. Obata, isn’t around.

Behind the building there’s a tiny dead garden, strewn with dented Budweiser cans, oily-orange napkins, and asoot-coated tree. Still, tenants come out here to picnic among the slugs and the trash and the dirty birds with their matted feathers and mutilated legs. Other’s prefer to eat out on the roof, overlooking Madison Square Garden, the Post Office, and the multitudes of “gourmet” delis and pizza joints. Everything looks less real from the roof—the billboards, the decaying towers, the decaying people, the shit on the streets, the piss in the phone booths—life seems far away and minute. The sun sinks like a yolk into steam, the smog absorbing its light; and a spectacular pinkish-yellow nuclear glow annihilates the grime.

I like the stoop. It exists on its own—and it’s closer to the ground. Some days, no one will be sitting on the brick wall that borders what can be described only as an elevated heap of dirt; and other days, you’ll find a group of students—guys and girls, American, Russian, Chinese—smoking cloves, drinking beer-in-the-bag, and inventing names for various kinds of sexual positions. Still, on other days, you might find one of the local bums trying to barter with you—maybe offering you an old Bic pen for a sip of your Bud, or a half-smoked roach for a dollar. A couple of them like to sit on the wall, themselves. “Just holdin’ up the fort,” they’ll say, flashing toothless smiles in your direction as they dart their hands in and out of their shirts, scratching their broken chests and hollowed cheeks and boiled necks and water-logged legs.

I ate dinner on the stoop tonight. Spinach and tomato salad, an ear of salted, buttery corn, a Greek pastry from down the street, and a tall glass of orange juice. Noticed a figure off to my left. Made eye contact. Awkward. He was just sitting there, resting his knees, looking far off.

“Sorry ma’am, I’ll be out of your way,” he says, gathering his old bones.

“You can stay, it’s fine.”

“Naw, I don’t want to bother you while you’re eating.

I try to say, “You’re not bothering me,” but he cuts me off before I can finish.

“Well I feel like I am,” and he leaves.

About five minutes later, he comes back, fluttering around the gate, wiping his hands in an exaggerated manner as if to let me know that he knows how to get properly clean. As if to tell me, “I may be homeless now, but at least my mama raised me right, so please don’t ever blame this on my mama, God rest her soul.”

His right eye twitches as he tells me, “You the nicest lady I ever met from New York City,” and I say, “That’s probably because I’m from Miami.”

I invite him to sit, and he picks a spot as far away from me as possible, trying to tell me, “I won’t touch you.” We talk. I give him half of the pastry. He eats it, carefully, with bird-like bites; and once he’s finished, he stands up and walks over to where I am sitting to hand me the bowl. He goes back to his spot by the gate, and tells me about his wife who cheated on him with his own brother, back in Norfolk. How she confessed to the crime at the worst possible time—right there in the middle of his mama’s funeral, in front of everybody, all the kids and the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and the minister. How he went numb that night. Couldn’t say a word. Didn’t want to anyway, but physically, couldn’t even part his lips or grate his teeth to say, “Fuck you.” Says that he decided to become homeless that night. That it was his choice—and he really needs someone to believe this.

“So I took a 4 A.M. bus into New York City and has been here ever since,” he says, shrugging. “Five-and-a-half months—before that, I was a doctor. But I don’t really mind. Just sometimes I wish I had more to eat—oh, but I don’t mean to be ungrateful. No, sir. Always got to be thankful.”

I ask him where he usually eats.

“Flophouses most the time. They call those ‘soup kitchens’ in Russia. But then the churches open up every Sunday for you to get your stuff—potato chips, bread, coffee and little Danishes, if you will. Yes sir, got to be grateful in this world—but I’ll tell you something, most people ain’t. You got bums in there aksin for prime rib and yellin’ at them knobby church ladies that the soup ain’t hot enough, the bread ain’t soft enough, this and that and what have you—man, those bums get angry over everything. Makes me sick to be alive.”

He pauses for a moment, rubbing a large hand over his kinky reddish hair. “But I’m goin’ back to Norfolk soon as I get enough money for my bus ticket. I don’t care if my brother and my wife’s dead, so long as I get away from here.”

“How will you get the money?” I hear myself ask, and immediately regret it.

“Oh, it’ll come. I got friends everywhere. In the bus station, in the train station. They’ll hook me up. They know where I live.” And so do I. I see him every morning on my walk to Penn Station, usually fast asleep on the pavement in front of the corner store, with a brown-bagged bottle on his stomach and a crumpled Puerto Rican flag as his pillow.

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