Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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Outside the OTB, JR stands four dollars lighter than when he entered. The loss has no effect on his smile.
We walk up 80th Street, stopping to search every trashcan outside every house. Jauntily JR takes the steps that lead down to the half basement level where the trashcans are kept. His hands form pincers, twisting and pulling at the plastic to undo the knots. In no time at all he finds himself up to his elbows in yesterday’s life, oblivious to the twitching blinds and staring passers-by – or maybe not oblivious, simply indifferent.
He rummages …
He finds a bottle of hot sauce.
‘I could use that,’ he tells me.
At the third house JR runs his hand over an as yet unopened black plastic bag. His eyes brighten. The bag is cold. It means that somebody has just emptied out their refrigerator. He pulls at the knot. Sitting on the top is a half-frozen pack of eight chicken thighs. He removes them. Studies them. Sniffs them. He searches for a date: June 28, 2004… that’s today.
‘Hmmmm … Well, I guess I’ll just have to eat you tonight!’ He places the chicken thighs on the lid of an adjacent trashcan and reaches back into the cold black bag. He removes a packet of unopened chorizo.
A bottle of Jägermeister.
Half a bottle of white wine.
A large unopened packet of salmon.
JR goes through the same ritual with the salmon that he went through with the chicken, twisting it and turning it and smelling it. Is there a date? June 28, 2004.
‘Now there’s a dilemma!’ he says to himself, ‘Do I eat the chicken or the salmon tonight?’
He picks the chicken back up and stands there, weighing his options.
A young man walks past with fifteen dogs, all on leashes, that scurry along ahead of him.
‘Chicken, or salmon? Well, if I eat you then you’re no good to me … but I could … eat you and salt you and save you till tomorrow! Yeah, that’s what I’ll do, chicken tonight, salmon tomorrow.’
JR continues to search the contents of the bag. Items that appeal to him are placed on the trashcan lid to his left, the items that don’t go in the open bin bag in a trashcan to his right. ‘French mustard,’ he says to himself. ‘Now I got me some of that, but what … What about an onion? Can I get an onion here?’
The front door to the neighbouring house opens and closes with a bang. A large woman appears, wearing an expensive sports outfit. She is possibly on her way to the sports centre that she joined more for social reasons than for health. An hour drifting on the rowing machine should be good for gossip. Her hair is blow-dried into a storm of waves. Her Chrysler car keys dangle in her left hand.
At the bottom of the steps she stops abruptly. What’s that noise? Is it a rat?
No. She studies JR. A little man who looks like he never found his way home from a Led Zeppelin concert. She tries to make out the items as he piles them up.
‘Watcha got there, honey?’ she asks as she sidles around the front of the house. She reaches the gate and hops down to JR, who continues to rummage.
‘Oh, a bunch of stuff.’
‘What’s that? Salmon?’
‘Yeah, today’s date though. I think if I salt it, it might keep another day.’
‘Why not just eat it today?’
‘Well, this chicken here also has to be eaten today …’
‘Oh I see, salt the salmon then. Plenty of salt, mind.’
The woman walks past JR and stops at a trashcan two down from him. She pops a bag open and starts to rummage. JR hears the clank of glassware but doesn’t turn to look. The woman holds a couple of glasses in the air, one in each hand. They are thick glass, fogged from twenty-five years of hard service, the kind old aunties still serve their lemonade in, worthless to some but purchasable at twenty dollars apiece if you take a liking to them in a trendy second-hand store. They would be the ones labelled as ‘retro tumblers’.
‘Oh, these are nice,’ the woman says, holding them up for JR’s approval.
“Pretty,’ he assures her. She leans over, places them on the wall in front of her and digs back into the bag, coming up with two more of the same.
‘Oh, what a shame. This one’s cracked,’ she says before coming out with a set of brown on brown sixties-style plates. She turns them over, studying them from different angles before deciding on the lot. Six plates and three tumblers slowly climb the stairs to her house before disappearing behind the big glass, panel door. A dishwasher starts its cycle while JR tops up his vodka bottle with Jägermeister.
JR takes his time packing the food into his trolley. He stands as if playing Tetris, trying to figure out the best order for packing, the system that will take up the least space. He packs and unpacks, spreading his bounty over the sidewalk to study the shapes. Eventually he covers the food with a large empty bin bag and moves on.
Three houses down, JR breaks into a smile. In a plastic bag he has found twenty-five porn magazines, mostly seventies retro chic – Big Titties, Bum Shanks, Tender Steaks – along with ten porn DVDs. He wastes no time in collecting the treasure and, as is his style, packs them carefully into his trolley.
He continues on his way.
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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