Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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I follow Joey through the gap in the wrought-iron fence.
There’s a huge statue to the left, ringed by another waist-high iron fence. A stern-looking chap sits on a bench facing us as we enter. He and Joey greet each other as they do on most evenings.
The statue is of an even sterner-looking fellow. He sits in an armchair, all done out in a three-piece suit and an elaborate beard. He holds a walking cane in his left hand, but, going by his expression, you might easily believe that it’s not for conventional purposes. He leans back in the chair, sits with his legs slightly apart, looking straight ahead. He carries the air of an important man. He looks like an achiever. He is Peter Cooper, ‘Engineer, manufacturer, and philanthropist.’ In 1828 he started the ironworks where he built the USA’s first steam locomotive. Joey walks past Peter and crosses Cooper Square, which is actually a triangle, and dumps his small yellow backpack on one of the benches in the middle of a row.
“I keep my stuff here,’ he says as he slips past the bench and pulls out a black bin bag that’s been stuffed deep inside a bush. The bag is full of clothes. He rummages inside for a minute, until he finds what he is looking for and changes his T-shirt. Joey returns from behind the bush with two large pieces of cardboard, one of which he hands to me. He wastes little time removing his trainers and preparing for bed. He ties his trainers by the laces to the armrest that will be nearest to his head, then he places his backpack up against the armrest. Getting on to the bench, he threads his legs through the circular armrest in the middle. He covers himself with his blanket, using his feet to spread the blanket all the way down. He drags the cardboard up off the floor and covers himself. He lies there inside his shell, feet poking out of one end; his head poking out of the other.
I sneak glances over at Joey, who lies with his eyes closed. That’s not to say he is asleep. He just closes himself off to the world. He listens to the cars that pass just a yard away on the other side of the bush. But he doesn’t react to the honking taxi, or the thunder of a lorry, or the screaming of a fire engine as it barrels down 3rd Avenue. He just lies there, dead still, not even a flicker of an eyelid.
He manages this for almost twenty minutes.
His eyes are open.
Leaning against a tree on the other side of the triangle is a bright-orange hard-shelled suitcase. Joey wonders how he missed it when he came in.
I watch as he slowly starts to uncoil himself from the bench. He gets to his feet and leisurely slides his trainers on. He doesn’t tie the laces but stands and walks to the left, to the furthest point of the triangle, where he slips in between some bushes and urinates.
He turns and slowly walks towards the hard-shelled orange suitcase, but he doesn’t stop.
He walks right past, pretending not to notice the out-of-place object.
He walks up past the statue, past the stern-looking gentleman, now fast asleep on his bench. He looks around. Who else is there? Anyone?
But who would leave an expensive bright-orange suitcase leaning up against a tree? Joey doesn’t know.
He walks another slow lap of the park to make sure we are alone and then collects the orange suitcase and carries it over to his bench.
The orange suitcase is on Joey’s lap. Gently he fiddles with the latches and lifts the lid.
No. Lady’s clothing.
The case is full of ladies’ clothing, all new, unworn and still with the sales tickets attached. Joey holds up a white linen blouse.
He holds up a pair of green combat pants.
‘Look at this,’ he says, holding up a T-shirt for me to look at.
‘Somebody’s been on a thieving spree.’
Randomly Joey picks out garments and holds them up for inspection. He feels the fabric and checks the prices. He wonders about the size. Once he has seen everything in the suitcase he starts to slowly fold and slip the clothing neatly back into position. He closes the lid and carries the suitcase back over to the tree.
Without another word to me he is back inside his cardboard shell.
His feet poke out from one end.
His head pokes out from the other.
Behind him a taxi honks loudly, but he doesn’t hear it.
What he does hear are footsteps, light and slow. Joey cracks open an eye and watches, as do I, an elderly, dirty-looking white woman walking past. She is halfway between Joey and the orange suitcase. She stares at the suitcase and instantly flicks her glowing eyes back to Joey. She walks fast, not towards Joey but at him.
Joey sits up. ‘You need to get the fuck away from me!’
I lie rigid on my bench, wondering how this will play out. She looks crazed and I start to wonder about the length of her fingernails. But the woman quickly backs off. She marches over to the suitcase, pulls up the handle and stomps away, dragging it behind her.
Joey remains up on one elbow, watching her leave.
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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