Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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As is often the case, my most beautiful moment while living homeless in New York was born out of an ugly moment. I hadn’t seen it coming, and in some respects was unprepared for it. So far, nearly every homeless person I had met on the streets had been happy for me to spend time with them and document their lives. But in Preston, a black man in his early 60s who spent his days collecting cans, I found a lot of anger that, by all accounts, had no outlet.
I became that outlet.
We were standing in a subway car at the time. I had followed Preston as he worked his way down from the entrance to the 5 train at Union square, with four industrial bags as tall as him that were full with cans for recycling. The bags were so big and heavy he could only take two at a time. He went back and forth, continually trying to catch up with himself.
Preston began shouting at me pretty much from my introduction. He was angry about many things, poverty, the distribution of wealth, a system designed to keep the poor poor, and the racism he witnessed and experienced every day.
“The black man is good enough to die face down in the mud for his country. But he ain’t good enough that he can get a decent job, a yellow cab, a safe place to sleep after he gave his youth to this here USA!”
Preston shouted at me all the way to the 149th street, where he exited the train with two of the bags.
“Well, what are you doing now?’ he demanded when I followed him with the other two bags.
Preston was a small, but strong man. Collecting cans in Manhattan was something he did with the seriousness and discipline of a small business owner trying to get to the next level. Only Preston wasn’t aiming for any next level. There was no promotion or better working conditions. Just him, his trolley, his bags and whatever weather was thrown at him.
I followed Preston, with the surprisingly really heavy bags, to the recycling station. I think the expression of shock and sadness on my face when we arrived was in part what softened Preston. But this post is meant to be about the most beautiful moment, so if you want to read about why the recycling station was the hardest thing to get over while living homeless in New York there is a link at the end of this post.
After the recycling Preston showed me where he lived. Due to an accident with a bungee cord that hospitalized him, Preston had been given one-room digs with a shared bathroom. He showed me quickly around, and then started showing me pictures of his granddaughter. He was alive now, animated and smiling as he told of how she always tried to get a dollar out of him.
To see that transition, from the angriest man I had ever met to the smiling, wonderful grandfather remains one of the most special things I have ever witnessed. Preston went from being closed, suspicious and aggressive to open, warm and giving. It gave me a sense of hope, knowing that something as simple as a conversation could turn back the clocks until a former, happier self emerged. He was not lost. He was still in there.
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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