It’s unusual for anyone to sit on a bus shelter bench this long and that is one of the reasons I first noticed him. And it’s also unusual for anyone to wrap up in two hoodies when the mid-day temperatures hover near 90 these days. My friend says he does that because he’s got no place to put his things. I understand. We both want to know why he doesn’t go to a shelter, why he now needs to sit precisely here.
There’s a hobo in front of my apartment building in the Bronx. He’s been here for ten days now, since a week ago Sunday. He sits on the bench, inside the bus shelter, and, for the most part it seems, he sleeps. Doubled over at a busy bus shelter in the Bronx, he sleeps.
I call him a hobo because for the life of me, every time I see him, that’s the word that comes to mind when I think of describing him to someone else. He’s not at all like the mythic hobos from the 1930s who rode the rails looking for work during the Great Depression. He doesn’t carry a wooden stick with his few belongings wrapped in a bandanna at the end of it. And the closest rails, discounting the subway stop down the block, would be the Metro North commuter railroad about six blocks away. But I think hobo is kinder than “bum.”
He most probably is homeless, but “homeless person” doesn’t describe him either, although it is a more politically correct expression of his current condition. He wears two hoodies, one over the other: one grey, with the grey hood slipped over his head, the other brown, and the hood lies flat against his back. He has three backpacks of varying description. One sits on his lap, the other against his back, and the third across his right arm, dangling over a plastic container of French fries which I imagine someone left for him to eat, the remnants of a takeout doggie bag from a diner perhaps. I’m sure the people who clean the bus shelters will leave it there next to him until after he leaves, not wanting to invade his space.
It’s unusual for anyone to sit on a bus shelter bench this long and that is one of the reasons I first noticed him. And it’s also unusual for anyone to wrap up in two hoodies when the mid-day temperatures hover near 90 these days. My friend says he does that because he’s got no place to put his things. I understand. We both want to know why he doesn’t go to a shelter, why he now needs to sit precisely here. He’s in a place of waiting, then leaving, but in fact he does neither. He sits. He sleeps. He stays.
On Tuesday, I stopped a police officer who was getting into his van to make sure he knew the hobo was there and to see if he might keep an eye on him. The cop walked over, jostled him awake, and spoke to him for a quick minute before letting me know there was really nothing he could do. But, he told me, he circles this block all day in the van and he’d watch out for the hobo for me. I said, “Thank you.” Now I know there are two of us who cannot do anything to help this man.
On Wednesday, I saw him from down the block as I came up from my train so I decided to get him some dinner. I bought a turkey club and a lemonade from the corner place and walked over to him to hand him the bag. He looked up to me, looked into the bag, and said, “Thank you” and set the bag down next to him on the bench. I left.
On Thursday, I handed him my own takeout doggie bag from a bar in Manhattan. I’d gone to see a colleague at a storytelling event and ran out of time to finish my dinner there. Again he said, “Thank you.”
On Friday, I noticed his ankles are swelling – he’s got no socks in his sneakers. And I wondered if it was just from his not going anywhere, his sitting, his sleeping sitting up. I worry about him, this hobo who has moved into my block, my bus shelter, my view, my consciousness, my conscience. But I have few resources other than a plastic bag with some dinner in it and a promise from a cop to look after him, from time to time.
On Monday morning, the hobo stood up. The bus shelter cleaners cleaned around him and he stood to watch them, as if they were vacuuming the rug under his feet as he sat watching T.V. on the couch. He had resumed his sitting when I came home Monday evening.
In my New York neighborhood now, homelessness is such a constant that I doubt anyone notices the hobo. There’s a woman who begs every day in front of the courthouse, another woman who wears a knit cap all year ‘round who stations herself near the bank, and the regular subway guys who wait at the turnstiles for someone to swipe them in. I do not know what happened to any of them, what pushed them out of some kind of shelter, what deprived them of a more secure way of life.
There is a group of New York City police who are encouraging their members now to take photos of the homeless to post on their Flickr page. It’s their way of letting the mayor know that the homeless who sleep on the street or huddle in doorways and alleyways are a nuisance, an undesirable “quality of life offense” like urinating in public. What I have come to know is this: there is no warning for most homelessness. It’s not something everyone can see coming, but rather it’s that one day you have a place and the next day, you do not. I’d like to reverse that – that one day you don’t have a place and the next day, you do.
How long could this man, this hobo, sit in front of your house? My best guess is that he will be there again tomorrow. I would also guess the bus shelter cleaners didn’t even see him. As if standing there, he didn’t even cast a shadow.
Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood. She blogs on The Backpack Press and Tumbleweed Pilgrim and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one. She is the author of “A Marshmallow on the Bus” and “Prayer Beads on the Train” and a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain. Most of her writing is done on the bus. www.about.me/anneborn. You can follow Anne on Wattpad, Instagram, and Twitter at @nilesite. And catch her on Our Salon Radio – Born in the Bronx airs on Tuesday and Thursday, Nilesite Writes, on Friday and Sunday.
Photo credit: the author