I lived in New York (in Brooklyn, but for the first six months on the Lower East Side) from the fall of 1989 until I went to grad school upstate in 1997. I loved New York, I loved Brooklyn, I loved working in Manhattan, I loved going to the MoMA during my lunch break (I worked at a movie theater nearby for a while when I was in college. I had half an hour for lunch and the MoMA used to let CUNY students in for free, so I'd spend about twenty minutes two or three times a week wandering through bits of the collection. I still haven't seen the new one. It's really sad.), I loved all the creative energy that was constantly churning away in my neighborhood, among the people I knew, my friends, acquaintences, the places I hung out... sigh.... I'm feeling nostalgic....
I also lived in New York when there were homeless people. When I've been back in recent years I'm always a little stunned by the lack of homeless people. It's kind of like when you leave the house without something and wander around feeling like you're forgetting something until you go to pay for something and remember that your wallet is sitting on the kitchen table. I feel like something is missing... what used to be here? It's actually rather disconcerting, but that is, really, an entirely separate issue. (The what, exactly, happened to all those folks? issue). But back when I lived in New York there were homeless folks. And there were a fair number who were clearly suffering from mental health issues, and I remember them being on public transportation. And in New York when I say public transportation I mean, almost exclusively, the subway. I was never really much for buses. The only one I ever used to take was the line that went from under the Williamsburg bridge (near where I lived) and went to Flatbush (where I went to school). But even that wasn't so common.
In two and a half years of living in Washington I've never, not once, seen anyone on the metro who was obviously homeless and/or mentally ill. Granted, I spend less time on public transportation than I did in New York, where it wasn't really possible for me to walk or ride my bicycle to work (I do both here). But I do sometimes take the bus. At both jobs I've had here there was a bus that practically picked me up at my door and dropped me in front of my work. So I've spent more time on the bus here than anywhere else in my life.
I think I found what New York did with all of those homeless people.
Washington has an astonishing number (proportionate to the population) of people manifesting serious symptoms of mental illness wandering the streets. And riding the bus. Definitely riding the bus. I was talking with a friend of mine about the differences between the bus and the metro here-- really, really big differences. In New York the populations weren't really different. There were, maybe, a few more elderly riders on the bus there, but otherwise I don't recall such a defined line between the two populations. Here, it's night and day. The metro is full of suburban professionals and tourists and service workers coming in from the edges of the city. Most people read the paper or books or listen to music on iPods or yell at each other loudly about whether or not they should get off at this stop because isn't this the Smithsonian? while wearing red white and blue clothing emblazoned with American flags (why do Americans who come to D.C. as tourists feel the need to dress in costume?).
On the bus there are a lot of people yelling at people you can't see.
For example, here is how yesterday's bus ride went: Get on bus, sit down, start to read book. At the next stop a fellow I have seen on this bus before gets on. He has wild hair and is carrying a large, woven plastic bag that is usually red white and blue striped and found strapped to the top rack of buses in the developing world. This one is covered with a Christmas themed pattern. He walks straight to the back of the bus and sits down, where he (re?) commences an argument with his invisible companion, whipping his head away from the window just long enough to shout, "I THOUGHT I TOLE YOU TO SHUT THE FUCK UP! I DON NEED YOUR HELP!" before turning back to stare sullenly out the window. He continued that argument for the remainder of the ride punctuating all other intervening scenes and conversations with his angry tirade against his invisible companion.
At the next stop a man in stained, greasy clothing got on and sat down not far from the guy who was yelling. He mumbled softly to himself and quietly stank up the bus. The next stop was the 16th street stop where a man in his sixties dressed like Shaft was standing on the curb looking pissed. The bus pulled up and opened the door. He stepped off the curb to stick his face as close to the door as possible without actually getting on, looking at the bus driver sourly, the light glinting off his sun glasses. "You late muthafuckah."
The bus driver, a guy in this thirties with his long dreads piled into a bun at least 14 inches tall on top of his head and with a hat that looked a lot like those worn by marching band leaders on top of it, making for a formidible wall of headdress, ignored him, staring straight ahead.
"You hear me, muthafuckah? You LATE. Now where the 96 at?"
The bus driver, without turning his head or his eyes away from the road ahead of him said, "I don't know where the 96 is. This is the 92."
The guy's face went even more puckered and sour. It was like a rant that you might expect from Samual L. Jackson on a bad day when he's ninety and senile. "Well I can SEE this is the NINE-TY-TWO, muthafuckah. I ain't BLIND. But I AXED you about the GOD DAMN NINETY-SIX." The bus driver ignored him. "Now YOU need to get your muthafuckin' COMPANY to get their muthafuckin' SHIT STRAIGHTENED OUT. Because I don see no muthafuckin' reason why I should always be waiting on this muthafuckin' corner waitin' for they muthafuckin' numbah ninety-six bus to SHOW UP. "
Finally, the bus driver responded. "People who use pro-fan-i-ty only do so be-cause they are in-ca-pa-ble of ex-pressing them-selves in an in-te-llec-tu-al manner." And he shut the door in the guy's face and stepped on the gas while the man shot daggers at him through his Shaft glasses.
Two blocks later a woman with eyes like Marty Feldman carrying a fake Christmas tree in a box got on. She looked at the bus driver, pausing way too long at the fare machine thingy, staring at him with pug eyes before saying, very very slowly, "Siiiiiiirrrr? Can I sit dooooooooown and find my faaaaaaaaaaaare?" He said yes and she spent a long time looking, asked what the fare was six times, dropped in the wrong amount, looked for another dime, put a quarter in, asked for fifteen cents back, didn't get it and then thanked the bus driver profusely. Meanwhile, the young woman sitting across from me went through the process of putting on and removing and packing away into her hand bag layers of her outfit, a process she repeated three times over two blocks. She was in her early twenties and was wearing enormous gold hoop earrings with the name "Latisha" written across the middle of them. Suddenly she stopped, looked around her like she'd awakened in a strange land, said, "What? Where are you? Where are you?" whipped her head back and forth, slumped forward, and than sat up singing. Loudly. After two lines I realized that I recognized the song-- and was not one that I would have expected (It was the country-pop band The Wreckers song, Leave the Pieces)-- but that is seemed to have taken on an R&B edge. (She was also less than accurate with her pitch). When she'd hit the second chorus, I was at work.
My office building used to be a methadone clinic. Like ten years ago. But junkies are like migrating birds-- they remember every damn pond they once rested in, from Mexico to Manitoba. So sometimes we get, ahem, characters who come a calling. The door bell rang. My colleague, thinking it was one of the interns, starts down the stairs, catches sight of the woman outside sporting a fill sized American flag on her head, turns back around and comes upstairs to the intercom. "Who is it?"
Flag Lady: "I want the services... I want the services..."
Colleague: "We don't have that here."
Flag Lady: "Well whatchoo got? What the hell you do then?"
Colleague give the one liner about what the organization does.
Flag Lady: "Well I don't want that!"
We look at each other, with the "well, DUH" look.
Flag Lady: "I want the services!"
Colleague: "We don't do that."
Flag Lady: "Well how the hell you know you ain't do that? I ain't even tole you what I want yet!"
Colleague shuts off the intercom, yells to everyone else in the office: "No one answer the door for a while til the crazy flag lady leaves!"