Unit 14 Homeless
1 Her name was Ann, and we met in the Port Authority Bus Terminal several Januarys ago. I was doing a story on homeless people. She said I was wasting my time talking to her; she was just passing through, although she’d been passing through for more than two weeks. To prove to me that this was true, she rummaged through a tote bag and a manila envelope and finally unfolded a sheet of typing paper and brought out her photographs.
2 They were not pictures of family, or friends, or even a dog or cat, its eyes brown-red in the flashbulb’s light. They were pictures of a house. It was like a thousand houses in a hundred towns, not suburb, not city, but somewhere in between, with aluminum siding and a chain-link fence, a narrow driveway running up to a one-car garage and a patch of backyard. The house was yellow. I looked on the back for a date or a name, but neither was there. There was no need for discussion. I knew what she was trying to tell me, for it was something I had often felt. She was not adrift, alone, anonymous, although her bags and her raincoat with the grime shadowing its creases had made me believe she was. She had a house, or at least once upon a time had had one. Inside were curtains, a couch, a stove, potholders. You are where you live. She was somebody.
3 I’ve never been very good at looking at the big picture, taking the global view, and I’ve always been a person with an overactive sense of place, the legacy of an Irish grandfather. So it is natural that the thing that seems most wrong with the world to me right now is that there are so many people with no homes. I’m not simply talking about shelter from the elements, or three square meals a day or a mailing address to which the welfare people can send the check — although I know that all these are important for survival. I’m talking about a home, about precisely those kinds of feelings that have wound up in cross-stitch and French knots on samplers over the years.
4 Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like it. I love my home with a ferocity totally out of proportion to its appearance or location. I love dumb things about: the hot-water heater, the plastic rack you drain dishes in, the roof over my head, which occasionally leaks. And yet it is precisely those dumb things that make it what it is — a place of certainty, stability, predictability, privacy, for me and for my family. It is where I live. What more can you say about a place than that? That is everything.
5 Yet it is something that we have been edging away from gradually during my
lifetime and the lifetimes of my parents and grandparents. There was a time when where you lived often was where you worked and where you grew the food you ate and even where you were buried. When that era passed, where you lived at least was where your parents had lived and where you would live with your children when you became enfeebled. Then, suddenly where you lived was where you lived for three years, until you could move on to something else and something else again.
6 And so we have come to something else again, to children who do not understand what it means to go to their rooms because they have never had a room, to men and women whose fantasy is a wall they can paint a color of their own choosing, to old people reduced to sitting on molded plastic chairs, their skin blue-white in the lights of a bus station, who pull pictures of houses out of their bags. Homes have stopped being homes. Now they are real estate.
7 People find it curious that those without homes would rather sleep sitting up on benches or huddled in doorways than go to shelters. Certainly some prefer to do so because they are emotionally ill, because they have been locked in before and they are damned if they will be locked in again. Others are afraid of the violence and trouble they may find there. But some seem to want something that is not available in shelters, and they will not compromise, not for a cot, or oatmeal, or a shower with special soap that kills the bugs. “One room,” a woman with a baby who was sleeping on her sister’s floor, once told me, “painted blue.” That was the crux of it; not size or location, but pride of ownership. Painted blue.
8 This is a difficult problem, and some wise and compassionate people are working hard at it. But in the main I think we work around it, just as we walk around it when it is lying on the sidewalk or sitting in the bus terminal — the problem, that is. It has been customary to take people’s pain and lessen our own participation in it by turning it into an issue, not a collection of human beings. We turn an adjective into a noun: the poor, not poor people; the homeless, not Ann or the man who lives in the box or the woman who sleeps on the subway grate.
9 Sometimes I think we would be better off if we forgot about the broad strokes and concentrated on the details. Here is a woman without a bureau. There is a man with no mirror, no wall to hang it on. They are not the homeless. They are people who have no homes. No drawer that holds the spoons. No window to look out upon the world. My God. That is everything.
4. 心之所在即为家。没有任何一个地方可与家相比。我热爱我的家，完全无关乎外观或位置。我爱家里那些看似蠢笨的一切：热水器，塑料碗碟架，头上那片偶尔漏雨的屋顶。然而，恰恰是那些蠢笨之物使家成为家。对我和家人来说，家代表着安定祥和、不受打扰的地方。家就是我所生活的地方。对于一个地方而言，还有比这更精彩的溢美之辞吗？这就是一切啊。 5. 然而在我的一生，以及我父母和祖父母的一生中，家却与我们渐行渐远。曾几何时，我们生活的地方往往是我们工作的地方，是我们种植蔬果谷物的地方，甚至还是我们离开尘世后的葬身之所。那个时代过去后，你居住的地方至少也是父母曾住过的地方，也是你年老体衰时与孩子共同生活的地方。然后，突然之间，你住的地方变成了你会住三年的地方，直到你迁往别处，然后再去另一个地方。