Documenting the Unworthy

Yesterday, while walking up Sixth Avenue near 8th Street, I chanced upon a specimen I thought had been left behind in the 1990s: Summer Homeless. It was a girl who appeared to be in her early 20s, with crunchy hair, slumped on a sidewalk elevator door while playing the accordion. A helpful sign scribbled on a piece of corrugated cardboard told passers-by what she was most in need of. (Sharpies were high on the list, for some reason.) On her wrist, a leash attached to the neck of a very large dog.

Once upon a time, these youngsters could be found everywhere from May to September, almost exclusively in the Village (East and West) and the Lower East Side. Ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-20s, they’d beg for change near Tompkins Square Park or Union Square, usually handing you an elaborate BS backstory that assured you the money would go no further than some dealer’s pocket. You could tell they were Summer Homeless and not For-Real Homeless by the large amount of sidewalk real estate they’d take up when begging, and the plaintive whine they’d adopt while giving their sales pitch. (For-Real Homeless folk are generally compact and subdued; at least the non-performing kind are.) If that didn’t tip you off, the fact that they were white and no older than 27 might.

If you ever went to a hardcore matinee at ABC No Rio, you probably bumped into a few of them on your way in as they indiscreetly chugged the cheapest, grossest tallboys imaginable (Crazy Horse or Laser, usually). Or if you took summer courses at/near NYU, you may have had to negotiate around their pleading carcasses on your way to class. You’d often see the same kids day after day, although occasionally one would admit defeat and tell you they needed dough to catch the next train back home to Long Island/Westchester/Connecticut. Once the autumn arrived, they’d all be gone, drifting back to the big plastic hassles of moms and schools.

I’m not sure if these folks ever truly disappeared. I may have just found myself in their favored haunts less and less over the last 10 years. I do know that until yesterday, it had been quite a long time since I’d seen someone begging on the street and immediately said to myself You live in Trumbull, don’t you?

Even so, I thought little of seeing this Summer Homeless once I’d seen her and recognized her for what she was, no more so than seeing an unusual car on the street (“Hey, a Citroen!”), before I reached my destination. But when I left said destination a short while later, I saw the same Summer Homeless girl being earnestly interviewed by a film crew of two, a cameraperson and a man with a mike.

To be fair, I didn’t hear their line of questioning. For all I know, they could have been asking her why she just didn’t go back Bryn Mawr like her parents wanted. Even so, I found this scene infuriating. After all, this city has thousands of legitimately homeless people in it–more so every day, I fear, given the economy. But rather than get the stories of any people experiencing actual hardship, these filmmakers decided to document the struggles of someone who can opt out of privation any time she wants to.

Do I know everything about this Summer Homeless person’s background, her story, what brought her to this corner? Of course not. But since she’s white and young and in America, she has it better than 99.9% of the planet right off the bat. Is it possible she has issues of some kind? Certainly. But in all likelihood, these issues pale in comparison to the actual problems of people who’ve been out on the street for years, who are genuinely mentally ill, and for whom hope is in short supply.

Having said all this, if someone decides she’s gonna spend a summer begging for change with her accordion and dog, fine. This doesn’t negatively impact my life in any way. But I do find it rage-inducing that some film crew is raptly capturing her every word while there was a real homeless man desperately looking for shade from a brutal summer sun at the Gray’s Papaya across the street. I mean, literally across the street. They could have seen this poor soul in their peripheral vision, if they had any.

If getting mad about this makes me a crabby old man, well…I became a crabby old man a long time ago, so screw it. Get off my lawn, Summer Homeless.

One thought on “Documenting the Unworthy”

  1. Can we picture a “positive” outcome of this?  Maybe her family and (even worse) her family’s friends see the report, and out of abject embarrassment, the parents tell little Muffy (all of my experience with rich children comes from 80’s movies) that she’s cut off and not welcome back in the house.  Then things get REAL.

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