Worn-out from a security job in the Bronx, I lugged myself up the stoop of my tenement in Bushwick, inserted the key in the lock, tried to turn it, but couldn’t. A white envelope taped underneath the diamond shaped window in the door caught my attention. I peeled it off and read the message left therein on a sticky-note: “Call this number for the key.” Fuck. Three weeks ago, I found a free writing workshop at the Brooklyn Central Library. There were people there who said that they would help me write my memoir.
Having gone through twenty new front door keys during my twelve years staying at 139 Wilson Ave, I knew that my turn to be evicted had arrived. Though I had started working the previous week, I had not paid rent in a year, nor had I paid rent on time in nine years.
Still, I felt bad for my landlord, Tony Genna. One time he told me, “Boyd, I work with you because you’re honest. If other tenants come late with the rent, I get them out of here.” This was the best compliment I have ever received, but I must confess to feeling relief about not being a problem for Tony anymore. He had always treated me like a member of his family, and when I’m able, I’ll pay Tony every cent I owe him.
Having to leave my diabetic cat behind made my insides numb. Shadow needed to be fed 130 calories of kitten food twice a day. Who would do that for him now? I let this concern go with my next breath. Tony knew how much I loved Shadow. He would find someone to care for him. Mr. Pintor, the person overseeing my eviction, saw my discomfort and told me to focus on getting myself right.
After his movers put my things in a storage facility on Grand Ave, Mr. Pintor gave me keys to the unit they put my stuff in, and advised that I check out Bellevue Shelter in the city.
I hopped on a Manhattan-bound L train on Grand Street to Union Square, transferred to the Uptown 6 train, and rode it to 28 th Street. Once again, I had hit rock bottom. Having dealt with bad luck my whole life, this situation didn’t bother me. I would handle it like I had handled all my issues, with aplomb.
On the walk to Bellevue, it felt like I was walking through irony. That the richest boroughs in the universe would have homeless shelters in them did not seem right. Midtown Manhattan’s gothic atmosphere had made me wonder about the millions who had taken the same journey I was now embarking on. I arrived at Bellevue at 10:45 pm. The building looked like an 18th Century Romanian Insane Asylum. I thought Bela Lugosi would greet me with a wide smile on his face upon entering Bellevue. Opening the door, I saw a line of tired men waiting their turn to be searched by security. I stood behind them patient, knowing that the city’s social safety net would help get me back on my feet. After I was searched by a tall security officer, he sent me to triage down the hall. It was packed with men who smelled unbathed. One of the available seats was next to a sleeping White dude in his thirties. His thick black beard had snots all over it. In the row of chairs behind him, I sat down next to an old African American man with gray hair. He wore a dirty T-shirt with his winter coat, dirty jeans and holey grey Puma sneakers.
I missed Shadow. By this time, he would be lying by my side, asleep.
Time dragged until Bellevue’s staff called me at 3:30 a.m. The intake officer informed me that there were shelters in all five boroughs, and she asked me which one I would like to go to. “Any in Brooklyn,” I responded. She chose the Bedford & Atlantic Men’s Shelter. I had to report there by November 22, 2013 at 10:00 pm.
My security shift at a parking lot started at 6:30 a.m. The intake officer recommended that I get an hour’s rest at Bellevue. She sent me to a dorm on the second floor, but its funk disgusted me. The moving energy and moaning coming out of the dorm triggered my fight-or-flight response. So, I split to the restroom, washed my armpits with soap, brushed my teeth, and did number one. Afterward, I rushed to ride the 6 train until I needed to sign in for duty.
Finishing a long day’s work, I rode the L Train back to Brooklyn and rented a hotel room on Wycoff Avenue in Bushwick. It would be my last night of comfort for lord knows how long. I accepted this fact, confident that I would straighten my life out.
The hotel room was warm, and the bathroom was clean. I soaked in the tub with hot water for two hours. My mind prepared itself for what it would go through in homeless shelters. I slept well.
Noon arrived. Ready to enter the next phase of my life, I turned in the hotel key and split to a Cuchifrito place on Myrtle and Knickerbocker. I ate mofongo, which rumbaed on my taste buds. I paid for the food and took a long walk to the Bushwick Library to read poetry. Walt Whitman’s “Shut Not Your Door’s,” “To the States,” “Full of Life Now,” and “Life,” touched me. At six o’clock, the library closed.
It was cold and dark on my walk to catch the L train on Montrose Avenue. I rode it to Crown Heights with people going home from work. They were doing their routine, and I was going to start a new one.
On approaching Bedford & Atlantic Men’s Shelter, I saw two young African American men standing in front of its entrance wearing raggedy hooded winter coats, baggy jeans, and brown Timberland boots. They were smoking Blunt’s like they were in front of their own house. As I walked by them, instead of smelling weed, a stench I had never inhaled before shot up my nostrils. I stepped through that nasty odor, jogged up the stairs and opened a large door. A long single line of men stood in front of me, just like at Bellevue.
Black men, White men, Spanish men, Asian men-they all looked alike. Worn down.
Having grown up in group homes, I believed that all I needed to do was behave myself so that the social workers at Bedford & Atlantic could send me to a decent place to live. That’s what the people at the teenage shelter Covenant House did after I lived there for three months. They transferred me from their main location at West 41<supst Street in Hell’s Kitchen, to a brownstone in Chelsea on West 15th Street.
I was checked by security twenty minutes after my arrival. “Hey, put your gym bag in the scanning machine, pull out all your pockets and pull up the bottom of your pants,” a six-foot, ten-inch guard demanded.
The thoroughness I was searched with made it seem as though there was order in that shelter. After the guard looked through my stuff, he sent me to a hall and ordered me to wait to be called. A female caseworker named Ms. Anderson summoned me an hour later and spouted platitudes about being in that shelter, assuring that her staff would help me if I helped myself. After reciting the shelter’s rules, Ms. Anderson said, “get a sheet, blanket, and pillow in the room across the hall.”
A grizzled old African American man who looked like he hadn’t been paid his weekly salary handed me a sheet and pillow. I didn’t say anything about the blanket because I was going to live in that shelter for free.
I rode the elevator up to the fourth floor with guys who reminded me of the hoods I grew up with in group homes. It would have been awkward encountering any of the fellas I knew from Covenant House, Project Enter, or Project Contact.
As the elevator door opened on the fourth floor, my body shifted into fight mode. It knew that the majority of the guys in these places had a propensity for violence. Ready to rumble, I saw men walking around, doing their thing. On entering my dorm, a meat-locker cold stung my body. Two windows were open. Out of twenty guys, I was the only Nuyorican (a Puerto Rican who lives in New York) in there. My case worker probably sent me to this dorm to integrate it.
After finding my cot and putting my stuff in a locker, I strolled to the shower. A cleaning crew had finished wiping the restroom and left it smelling like bleach. After washing, I moseyed to my cot thinking I would get good sleep before having to do a 12-8 p.m. Saturday shift. The dorm lights were out. I lie down. A minute later the scent of marijuana seeped over the locker to my left. Shit. Like I needed to be sleeping next to a pothead.
Five minutes after the guy in the cot next to mine started puffing, I saw a dude across the dorm fire up a blunt. Its smoke gradually snuffed out the scent of weed and replaced it with the horrible odor that I had smelled when I passed those two young boys in front of the shelter. Temptation urged me to get up, step to the puffer, snatch his blunt, stomp it out, and try to get some sleep. But it being my first night in that armory, my gut said, “Boyd, you have to do recon before doing some Crazy Eddie shit like that. Be cool and find out who these people are, then do what you have to do.”
I inhaled that annoying odor for an hour wondering how the dude smoking it could afford to buy drugs. I kept thinking, “where are the guards in this place? Was the metal detector and strong security presence at the front of this shelter only for show?”
Moments later, two security guards walked into the dorm. They checked all the cots and left without saying a word to anyone. I wanted to scream at the guards for not kicking the smoker out. But I did not, knowing that it would have put me in extra danger. Resignation closed my eyes.
Waking up the following morning with a headache, I approached the guy who had smoked the foulness the night before. As he lay on his cot, I saw that he was young, had smooth Black skin and a cropped afro.
On my way to the restroom, I smelled the same funky smoke I had smelled all night coming out of the other dorms. Men were also smoking that junk in the showers and restroom stalls. I even saw one dude at a sink, watching himself puff that shit in front of a mirror. Fucking drug dealers ran this joint.
I marched to the only available sink, and found it lined with spit and shaved black facial hair. My stomach heaved. As I brushed my night guard, the thought of it slipping out of my hands frightened me. If I dropped it in that sink, I would have left it there.
The bathroom stalls weren’t sanitary either. The first one I walked into had feces and urine all over the floor and toilet seat. After seeing that mess, I decided to take a leak at McDonald’s on Fulton Street. I shot to my dorm, put my travel kit away and dressed. The noise I made woke up the binge smoker. He sat up on his cot, opened his locker, pulled out half a blunt and lit it up. I had to inhale that funk three times before I was able to step out of the dorm.
Hating that smell, I fixed this situation by deciding to leave the dorm if anyone began smoking anything. If I had to do this for 90 days to show my case worker that I wanted to lead a clean life, then I would do it. I accepted these inconveniences at Bedford & Atlantic as character tests.
Five days later, the binge smoker walked in the dorm and fired up a blunt. I rose with my manuscript and started walking out. This douchebag followed me. On sensing his nearing body, I stopped, put my right hand inside of my pants and began scratching myself in an exaggerated manner. The jerk stopped behind me. I turned around to see what he wanted. When we made eye contact, he quickly turned around and stepped back to his cot. All the smoking he had done since my arrival, appeared to have hurt his health. His afro was unkempt, his face looked pale and his head kept twitching from left to right. These were the mind games I had to play with some people at Bedford & Atlantic. They were easy to win.
In all shelters they have a staff filled with medical doctors, mental health professionals and case workers. My case worker was named Ms. Charles. I asked her if she knew about the living conditions in Bedford & Atlantic. She ignored my question and asked me about my father. I told her, “My relationship with him is not good. He abandoned me when I became big enough to defend myself, and he made sure that the rest of my family does not help me with anything.” Ms. Charles said my father would assist with my situation. I cut her off, “The case worker from Bellevue told me the same thing. So, I called him. When I told my father that I lost my studio, he told me, ‘Okay. I’ll go to Western Union and send you a hundred dollars. Call me back in an hour.’
“He’s been treating me like this my whole life, Ms. Charles,” I said. “I admit that I’m seeing a psychiatrist and therapist to help me manage my schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and delusions. But it is important for you to know that my mother had me when she was thirteen years old. My father was twenty-one. I also have a sister who is one year younger than me. And we’d go to church every Sunday as a family. I did my first communion. This is why I’ve been avoiding my family since December of 2006. My father is an arrogant pedophile with protection from the church and the state. He is now a corrections officer in South Jersey and he only wants to know where I live and work. After I give him my information, he stops calling me, and sooner or later I have to deal with a mean employer or a mean landlord. I’m not going to reach out to him anymore. Plus, my father is also a racist. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday was made a national holiday, my father screamed in the living room, ‘I cannot believe they made that trouble maker’s birthday a national holiday. Man, no employer is going to pay time and a half for Martin Luther King.’
Ms. Charles squinted her eyes and said, “Oh, yes, they have to.” After completing the interview, she sent me to get checked for tuberculosis. The doctor’s office was compact. People with emotional issues were sitting in there, restless. I felt sorry for my homeless brothers. Their tense and tired faces made them look like they did not know how to fix their lives.
An old White doctor gave me a shot in my left arm and drew a circle around where he inserted the needle. If the area in the circle swelled, he said, I had tuberculosis. I didn’t worry about having anything.
On Thanksgiving Day 2013, Titi Zobeida called me as I worked on my story outside the dorm. She said, “Boyd, what are you doing living in a shelter? You know you could live with me. Come to Florida, I’ll buy you the ticket.”
I said, “No thanks, tia. I’ll work my way out of this situation. The shelter is providing me with what I need to get ahead. I have a cot, locker, toilet, shower, and sink to brush my teeth in. They also have a social service staff working together to help the clients living here. I’ll be okay.”
“Boyd, I’m just reminding you that you’ll always be welcomed in my house. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and take care of yourself. Que Dios te bendiga.”
I didn’t take tia’s offer because she knew what my parents did to me when I was a child, and she never called the cops.
A week and a half into my stay at the shelter, the criminals in my dorm tried to get information out of me. I dealt with a Rastafarian named Father Allah. He had bad ankles, which made him walk with a limp. His dreadlocks, wrapped in an orange Rasta cap, reached the small of his waist. He slept in the cot to my left, and he knew the kid who smoked the junk that bothered me. I laughed to myself the first time I heard him speak. This Rastafarian had a Brooklyn accent.
When Father Allah would converse with the young boy at his cot, I’d leave the dorm as soon as the kid lit up. I believed those dudes wanted me to listen in on their conversations. When they realized I’d stay put when no one smoked, the young boy wouldn’t fire up.
One night I heard the binge smoker thanking Father Allah for getting him a cot in our dorm. He explained that, “sleeping here is helping me get my lyrics right.”
I knew that young boy did not need to be in a shelter. He believed that living in one would make him a better rapper, stupid 50 Cent wannabe. Father Allah didn’t need to be in that shelter either. My third night there, I saw him sign for his bed and leave after the bed check.
After Father Allah figured out that I was Nuyorican, he brought a Spanish dude to the dorm since I wouldn’t talk to anyone in that place. This man had a comical accent and the straightest natural hair I’d ever seen on a person of African descent. He appeared to be an established member of the shelter. On a freezing night, he proclaimed in the middle of the dorm how evil the White man is. Everyone listened as he went into detail about this topic. The Blacktino riffed:
“You got to watch your back with the White man. If you start doing business with him be careful or he’ll give it to you in the ass without Vaseline. The White man doesn’t know what Vaseline is. And if you offer him some, he won’t want it after he finds out that it will help his bicho go in easy. This is because he likes to do people raw. For example, Babe Ruth was a Black man. If you look at a picture of the Babe, you’ll see his nose was bigger and wider than mine. But the White man kept that information out of the papers because he don’t want no one but his own kind to respect themselves. Notice that Babe Ruth is the only sports superstar in the history of the world who didn’t have a mother, father, brother, sister or any family at all. The papers said he was raised in an orphanage to cover up the fact that he was a Black man. And who owns the papers? The White man, right? I’m telling you, Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first Black man to get into the Hall of Fame. Babe Ruth was, but the White man will never admit it because he don’t want no one but his own kind to be proud.”
Amused, I joined the crowd of eight guys around Father Allah’s cot and asked the Blacktino:
“De dónde eres?,” pregunté.
“Puerto Rico,” dijo.
“Cómo te llamas?,” pregunté.
Father Allah came from left field, butted into our conversation, introduced himself, and shared his history. He said he did time upstate for armed robbery and explained how all the law enforcement officials up there were related and had that part of New York locked down. Father Allah almost made me laugh when he said with amazement that groupies went to the prisons upstate regularly to have conjugal visits with the inmates, especially the famous inmates. Then he eased into polite interrogative mode. He asked me in front of everyone, “What you think about the guys who mess with people in here?”
Knowing that this question was designed to find a responder’s weakness, I told Father Allah and the other fellas, “Nothing. If any mother fucker in here looks, says, or does something I don’t like in my direction, I will kill him, then rape him.”
All of the guys stood in disbelief. One of them gasped, “God damn. Rape him after he’s dead?” Father Allah looked into my eyes and declared: “So, you not one to be messed with?”
I nodded in agreement. The conversation ended. Everyone except me, Father Allah and Rudy stepped to their cot silent.
Father Allah sold marijuana at Bedford & Atlantic. It seemed as though he wanted to find out if I used drugs. I wasn’t going to give him any more personal information, so I asked him, “Where you be breaking out to, bro?”
“My girl’s place,” Father Allah said.
“Why do you stay here if you can stay at your girl’s?” I asked.
“I keep this bed in case that bitch gets on my nerves.”
Father Allah opened his locker and began looking through it. He didn’t say anything else to me nor Rudy. We looked at each other, shrugged, and returned to our cot’s.
The consequence of my pronouncement to Father Allah? No one bothered me for the next three months. Leaving the shelter at 9:00 a.m. and returning at 9:30 p.m. helped me stay out of trouble. I’d spend the entire day in the Brooklyn Central, Dekalb, or Bushwick Library reading and writing. Time passed fast during this period because I had been attending a writing workshop at the Brooklyn Central Library. The NY Writers Coalition held them on Monday’s at 3:00 p.m. and having my stories heard calmed my nerves.
A month and a half into my stay at Bedford & Atlantic, when I turned in my sheets and pillowcase, they gave me clean ones and, to my surprise, they also gave me a wool blanket. By then, my body had adjusted to sleeping in the freezing cold. The guys in my dorm would turn on an industrial sized fan every night when they smoked K-2, a super strong incense which I’ve complained about throughout this story. I didn’t say anything about the fan because people who complained in Bedford & Atlantic doomed themselves. I appreciated the wool blanket because not only was it warm, when I put it over my head, the odor of K-2 didn’t seep through it like it did through the sheets. That first funk-free night relieved me.
Of the many characters who lived at Bedford & Atlantic, one used to amuse me the most. He was an old man who slept in my dorm and wore his pants below his butt. He would spend all day ranting to an imaginary audience how the CIA kept sending UFOs to monitor his brain so that they could find Wonder Woman. He would scream about suing them for violating his constitutional rights: “I’m going to win my case against these mother fuckers because Clarence Thomas’s work to get reparations from the White man began during the Anita Hill trial.”
One night I got up to relieve myself. As I made a right at the foot of my cot, I almost walked into that nutty old man. Before we made contact, he threw his right hand at my face. I tucked my chin into my left shoulder, placed my left hand up to my ear and stepped into his space. Upon doing this, the old man stopped following through with his punch. So, I waved my right arm out like a matador and said, “I’m sorry, sir. You go ahead.” The old man responded, “Fuck you, cracker. I don’t trust no fucking crackers. You go first.” I did as he asked with no issues.
During this period of my stay at Bedford & Atlantic’s Men’s Shelter, the writing workshop I had been attending had become tense without warning. Two older Black men were giving me negative feedback about my use of the word “nigga.” Reggie, a retired professor, and Eugene, a senior bike messenger, had surprised me with their adamance. Initially, I thought they were kidding. How can anyone write their truth if they are not allowed to write in the language that is used in their world? This situation came to a head the day I read a story about how a Belizean co-worker had pulled down her pants, bent over and told me to begin relations with her while we were patrolling the sixth floor of a project building in Brooklyn. I followed her order and when I tried to insert myself into her, she screamed. Panicked, I warned: “Yo, don’t scream like that. Niggas are going to call the cops.”
Reggie and Eugene came down hard on me: “Don’t use that word. It’s offensive,” Eugene said. “You can make the point you want without using inappropriate language,” Reggie said. These guys were good men, and I believed that they had my best interest at heart. But I thought that they got tight for nothing, and I became angry. Who were they to be censoring anyone? It took me time to understand the point they were making. The reason for their objections became clear one evening while I sat in the TV room at Samaritan Village Men’s Shelter watching the Nets-Knicks basketball game. A young Black man had walked in and started talking to the old Black guy sitting next to me.
“Yo, let me hold $2?” the young man asked.
“You see that nigga sitting back there?” the old man asked.
“Which one?” the young man asked.
“The one who looks like a shaved ape,” the old man said.
The young Black dude observed the rows behind us, spotted the guy who looked like a shaved ape, winced and said, “God damn. What zoo did he escape from?”
“The one that leaves their cages open. Go ask him for the money he’s been owing me since last month. If he gives it to you, you just have to give it back to me in three days,” the old man said.
The man being talked about had an overbite, was dark Black, in his fifties, bald, and burly. He overheard this conversation and yelled from the middle of the room, “oh, fuck you niggas. I got your ape right here. Yo, this mother fucker saw my johnson when I got out the shower last week and his eyes almost came out his head. Yeah man, he got scared because he ain’t never seen one so big before.” The riled up old man stood in a huff, grabbed his crotch and said, “I got your ape right here, niggas.”
I’ve listened to people speak like this my whole life. To this day, when I walk the streets of Bushwick, East New York, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brownsville, or East Flatbush, I hear boys, girls, teenagers, and adults address each other with the phrases, “what up nigga,” “my nigga,” and “how you doing nigga?” Everyone uses this word in my world as a term of affection. But it hit me in the chest that the word nigga was used for centuries to strip Black people of their self-worth. Thus, I felt the disgust a decent person would feel hearing someone say nigga in any context. It is an offensive word that shouldn’t be used. I’ve deleted this epithet from my vocabulary. On the way toward writing a 21st century pauper’s memoir, I’ve learned the importance of keeping my mind and heart open. Being in this state allows me to analyze the world from an objective point of view and has led my heart to understand the necessity of respecting people’s feelings, an issue which the NY Writers Coalition workshops guided me to address and resolve. Gracias, mi gente.