Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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The realization of my absolute vulnerability while living homeless in New York came on day seven. Until this point sleep had been fleeting. I had spent my nights dosing in and out, but mostly I was kept awake by a combination of profound fear and discomfort. But on the evening of day 7 exhaustion took over my mind and my body. Early evening I started to fall asleep as I walked along the sidewalk. With Manhattan being a grid of roads where every driver seems to enjoy a side of menace – falling asleep while walking was a dangerous prospect. I knew I had to finds somewhere safe to rest my head.
I had only two requirement: I wanted somewhere with low pedestrian traffic and I wanted to be near another homeless person. Being near another homeless person seasoned with the way of the streets gave me, rightly or wrongly, a sense of security.
So I find my spot on 10th Street. Not the quietest street in the world but the best option considering where I was. There was a homeless man sleeping on the other side of the street. I lay down, put my backpack under my head, cover myself with my flimsy British Airways blanket and plummet into a deep, exhausted sleep.
“Dude! Like, what the fuck?”
When I was finally dragged from my sleep I found a young man and a young lady staring incredulously at me. Their astonishment appeared very real.
The young man, upon seeing my eyes open, added, “You’re not a real bum!”
And in his defense I wasn’t, as he put it, a real bum. Is it that obvious, I wondered? I was bearded and dirty and greasy and, let’s not forget, asleep on the sidewalk. But it turned out not to be my appearance that gave me away.
“Dude, you were just with us at the party!” he goes on emphatically.
Tired and in a state on confusion I may have been, but I was well aware that I had not, of late, attended any parties. I told the couple they had mistaken me for somebody else. This is where things started to get really interesting.
A couple of minutes of cajoling passed, where they tried to convince me I had been partying with them all night, and where I insisted they had me mistaken for somebody else.
“Not ten minutes ago you were at the party dancing with us and now you’re on the sidewalk asleep! I mean, like, what the fuck, dude?”
But then things just got aggressive.
“Why are you being such an asshole?’ the girlfriend wanted to know. ‘You just spent most of the night with us and now you want to act like you don’t even know us?”
“Dude, stop fucking about. Come on. Let’s go!” they boyfriend demanded.
“You fucking asshole! How can you do that to us?” the girl asked, almost tearfully.
“Yeah, screw you, man! We’re outta here!” And with that they started to walk. Then the boyfriend turned his head and over his shoulder added, ‘But I know that’s not where you live!’
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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