Memory is a strange thing. You can forget immediately something you absolutely should not but recall with crystal clarity the most random collection of thoughts and occurences. That shopping list you memorised over three consecutive days? Gone. The location of the dog’s squeaky toy? Etched into your frontal lobe with a laser. It happens quite regularly with my travels. I remember filing certain moments away as unforgettable, but not what those moments actually were. On the flip side I remember the face of a chap I spent less than an hour with in Vietnam but not the moment I saw my then-girlfriend for the first time in 6 months.
I have no idea what the remembered moments from this trip will be. Will I remember writing this? Well probably yes now I’ve made an example of it, but there will be numerous significant-at-the-time moments that will slip silently into the void never to be seen again. I call these “Patrick Kielty” moments and many have gone the way of cheeky wee Paddy already. Something that has lodged itself back there is, rather strangely, my first experience with the US homeless population.
We’re no strangers to the homeless in the UK. Both major cities I once called home suffered from a number of problems resulting in people on the streets. The shelters were underfunded or understaffed, habitual substance abuse was common with no education or rehab programs in place. Those poor buggers kicked out of the help centres had no choice but to wander the streets alone. It wasn’t and isn’t a nice situation and even more uncomfortably it’s one most people see as politically acceptable, or at least palatable. Heading to New York I knew very well it was one of the largest cities on the planet, dwarfing even London. I expected there to be a homeless presence. What I did not expect was the condition there were in.
In Leeds there was a local homeless chap, a cheery Welsh fellow we termed Gruff. He hung around the local greasy-spoon asking for tea money. I once bought him a cup directly, a much more efficient agreement. He didn’t like that at all. He was no doubt enduring a horrible situation but was well enough known to ensure a steady flow of donations and food. He was ambulatory, is what I’m saying. In the US it’s often hard to tell if a homeless person is alive or dead. That may sound glib but it’s the simplest way of putting it; I’ve seen people on the street so lifeless they may actually have been dead. This in the centre of Western Capitalism, a city so engorged with money and success they advertise multi-plan savings accounts on screens 100ft high. It was shocking. The disparity between the haves and have-nots is staggering. I’d heard stories of the gap from friends from these parts but I don’t think they ever registered, not really. Maybe I assumed they were exaggerating for effect. I, hah, can’t remember. But they weren’t.
Unfortunately the newest moment to make my mind its home is of an elderly black gentleman sprawled across a bench not two blocks from Wall Street. Obviously homeless, as I pass am I unable to spot any signs of life whatsoever. He could be alive and sleeping, he could be dead. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. Two minutes later on The Street itself I see a group of yuppies, the kind I thought died with the 80s; slick haired Patrick Bateman types with golden watches and $1000 shirts. They laugh noisily to each other across The Street, climbing into offensively expensive sports cars before roaring to lunch 3 blocks away.
What a strange world we live in.