Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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Nancy and Kim are short. They both wear their hair halfway down their back. They stand, in jeans and vests, with their cleavages pumped up and pointing at the faces that walk past. Nancy and Kim met while serving prison sentences in Rikers Island women’s prison, in upstate New York. They were released two weeks ago and since then have been living homeless on the streets of New York. This information comes very freely and without prompting. They wear their story like an ever-evolving badge of honour.
They don’t like men, but they are aware that men like them. Nancy spots a guy who has stopped to light a cigarette. He wears a smart checked shirt tucked into his black jeans. He unclips a flip-phone from his belt and thinks about making a call while stealing glances at Nancy and Kim. He looks as if he worked out once, but now has a small paunch hanging over the waistline of his jeans. Leaning against a shop window as casually as a peeping Tom possibly can, with greying hair glistening in the sun, he takes in their every touch. His strong clean-shaven face and half-tone sunglasses hide nothing of his thoughts. ‘Can you help the homeless today, sir?’ Nancy asks as she fiddles with the top of the water bottle that is placed on the table in front of her. It’s one of those big industrial water bottles that you would find in an office. It is empty.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Nancy. What’s yours?’
Nancy, at twenty-three, is the younger of the two women. Her hair has been bleached, but her roots and true colour, more of a dirty blonde, hang down level with her eyes. She has a round tanned face with a little outbreak of acne on her right cheek. When she smiles, everything from her eyes to her hips are involved.
Noticing that Nancy is talking to somebody new, Kim reaches over and slides her hand down the back of Nancy’s jeans. In a low voice, JV says, ‘OK, we’ll let you go about your business. I’ll see you later.’
‘OK, baby,’ Kim says. ‘Come back, OK?”
“The man smoking the cigarette feels more confident now that he has the girls to himself. He steps closer.
‘So what’s her name?’ he asks, flicking his cigarette ash to the ground and nodding at Kim. ‘So, what? Are you homeless?’ ‘
Yes, we’re homeless,’ Nancy says as she lets all her weight fall on one leg, allowing her hips to stand at a forty-five degree angle.
‘She’s my girlfriend,’ Kim tells the man.
‘Yeah, I can see that. So where do you sleep? Around here?’
‘Sometimes. We move around a lot.’
‘I’m Paul,’ the man says, slipping a five-dollar bill into the water bottle. ‘So do you girls, like, do anything else?’
‘Well, party, you know, I could get us a room and we can have some fun. When I leave you’ll have the room for the night. It’s got to be better than the sidewalk.’
‘We’ll make enough here to get a room tonight. I mean, that’s why we’re out here, to earn enough for a room.’
‘Yeah, but if I get the room then you can keep your money, get high?’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ Kim says.”
“Nancy switches hips. ‘Why don’t you leave us your number and we’ll call you later.’
‘Sure, look, here’s my card …’ and then, having second thoughts, he takes the card back. ‘Actually, no. Let me write it down.’ Nancy rummages through her bag and removes a small notebook. She flicks through the pages trying to find a blank page.
There aren’t many left. All the pages appear littered with names and numbers.
Jeff: 917 574 XXXX
Phil: 917 254 XXXX
Brad: 646 145 XXXX
Mike: 917 347 XXXX – call me!
The notebook contains over thirty names and numbers.
Eventually a blank page comes up.
Paul: 917 688 XXXX – call before 6, or call me tomorrow.
‘It was nice to meet you,’ Paul says, offering his hand to be shaken. ‘But you should call me. I’ll take you out to dinner, and get us a nice room. It’ll be fun.’
‘Sure,’ says Kim. ‘As soon as we know what time we’ll be done here we’ll give you a call.’
‘What food do you like?’
‘I want Thai,’ says Kim.
‘Great. I know a nice place where I’ll take you. Call me when you’re done.”
“OK, Paul,’ says Nancy as he starts to walk away. ‘Thank you!’
‘Jerk!’ says Kim as soon as Paul is out of earshot.
‘Did you see the way he was looking at me?’ Nancy asks. ‘Right. He kept licking his lips. Yeah, that turns me on for sure, now we’ll fuck you!’
‘Oh, come here, baby,’ says Nancy, laughing and taking Kim into another kissing embrace, causing a black man walking up the sidewalk to call out, ‘Oh! damn! Lesbians!”
As always, these thoughts are my own and are by no means the rule. I would love to hear from people with experience around homelessness, especially about being homeless in New York. Please comment below and I will reply.
“Digging beneath the statistics and poverty, Emmins’ is a more than human portrait,” Dazed and Confused
“An absolutely fascinating book, a portrait of life on the streets of New York,” Robert Elms, the BBC
“A book that captured, without drama and urban myth, the reality of life on the streets,” Time Out
“Cutting edge reportage – Alan Emmins sees the world with such a fresh eye,” William Shaw
“Emmins’ portraits are tender and often shake his self-confidence to its core.” the Metro
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