Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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We ride the subway to 102nd Street. People are starting to arrive at the methadone clinic for their daily dose, their medicine.
The clinic sits halfway along a block, half a block from Central Park. Its double doors are made of stainless steel frames with a vertical glass panel.
Around the frames is a horrid faded and depressing blue façade.
Nancy and Kim sit on the wall of a trough, out of which one lone tree sprouts.
But it’s only Kim who is feeling sick. It’s only Kim that’s on methadone treatment. Through those glass doors is everything she needs.
‘You’ll be alright soon, baby,’ Nancy assures her, and then, looking up, she says, ‘She’ll be alright once she gets her medicine.’
It’s 3pm now; doors open for the afternoon shift at three thirty.
A man walks up from the left. His clothes, like his long hair, are bedraggled and dirty. He has the tell tale half-empty sports bag over his shoulder. He has Disney-shaped eyes that are black and droop down most of his face. He looks at Kim.
‘Oh shit, they keeping you waiting?’
Kim looks up. ‘They don’t serve until three thirty.’
‘Oh shit, really? What is it now?’
‘Fuck. I didn’t know that, this is my first time here. I just got in from West Virginia last night. What are you on here?’
‘Oh fuck! One-eighty, a little thing like you on one-eighty, that’s crazy. What do you think they’ll start me on?’
‘I don’t know, not one-eighty.’
‘I was on one-forty in West Virginia. You think they’ll give me that?’
‘Not just in off the street. They might start you on eighty.’ ‘Oh man, I can’t be doing no eighty. If all I get is eighty I’m gonna need to score some dope.’
‘They ain’t gonna just give you one-forty ’cause you tell them that’s what you got back home. But it’s real easy to get bumped up here.’
‘What? Five a day?’
‘No, all last week I was being bumped up ten milligrams a day.’
‘Are you fucking kidding me? Ten a day?’
‘I just kept telling her that I was still sick. I started on one-forty, a week later I was on two-ten …’
‘Yeah, but that was fucked up so I took myself back down to one-eighty.’
A very pretty girl with piercing eyes and a sweet teenage smile leans against a wall, listening. Her long curly hair is pulled back in a ponytail and held in place by a blue scrunchy. After a short pause she interrupts.
‘Who do you see to get bumped up?’
‘Your nurse. You still sick?’
‘Yeah, but I’m only on thirty and I don’t need a lot more. But thirty’s not getting me through.’
As the time crawls nearer to three thirty more people arrive. Another man, in his late twenties, arrives hand in hand with his five-year-old son.
At three thirty, people are allowed in. They take up chairs in the waiting room until their name is called. It’s typical of an institution waiting room: brightly coloured uncomfortable chairs and walls lined with sensitive advice posters and helplines.
Do you know somebody on drugs?
Do you know somebody suffering from addiction?
Do you know somebody that shares needles?
These attempts at softly, softly are frankly bizarre.
Do you know somebody that needs help?
Bar my fortunate self, all of these do you know somebody questions could be answered by everybody else in the room with, ‘Yeah. Me!’
‘After their drink, some come back and sit in the waiting room; others walk straight out of the door. In the background the guy from West Virginia is arguing: ‘But the girl out there gets one eighty and she’s half my size …’
“Oh, thanks,’ whispers Kim. ‘You’re really fucking smart.’
A man and his son are sitting in the waiting room. The little boy is already throwing himself into gangster poses, desperate to imitate his father. He’s already got the baggy jeans and the basketball vest over his white T-shirt. He has the Nike trainers and the Yankee cap. All he needs now is another four feet of height.
The father speaks.
He says, ‘Hey, Kimmy, how you doing?’
‘I’m doing OK.’
Nancy talks to the boy, ‘Hey, sweetie,’ then to the father. ‘He looks so cute in those pants.’
The father says to Kim, ‘Do you need anything?’
Kim says, ‘No!’ in a slightly terse voice.
‘I got everything, what do you need?’
‘I don’t need anything.’
‘Look here …’ The father pulls out a cigarette packet and after a sneaky look around takes his son’s hand and tips the contents out into it. The tiny dime bags of heroin look big in the little hands. The father signals to the son to go over and show Kim what’s on offer. The boy stands with attitude, lips pouted in what is supposed to be a menacing grimace. He has watched his father do it a thousand times before. He knows how to act. He takes a step, but as he does Kim stands, red-faced and angry. She looks as if she is about to explode, but can’t, because she can’t afford to be thrown out of the clinic, not before getting her drink. Her name is called in the nick of time and she leaves the room.
The father smiles at his son encouragingly. First you recognise a market, then you target your customer and if you can get them all in the same room bugging out from product withdrawal you can just keep targeting them and targeting them and targeting them. Look, son, here comes another one. I look at the little boy with his doomed future and think of lotteries.
Kim doesn’t calm down until we are in Central Park. We sit watching rollerbladers go by while the girls tell me stories about the daily dose of men who try to get them into cheap hotel beds.
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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