I’ve never spoken to homeless people. They frighten me. Once, while walking out of a Starbucks in SoHo carrying my coffee, a wild-looking man walked over and began screaming. I ran away as I watched him lunge at me. I had no confidence that onlookers would help me out, and felt lucky my body remembered I had been a sprinter in my younger years. Even my bad hip cooperated as I ran down a cobblestone street, choosing not to look behind me to see if the homeless man was catching up.
Today, though, I spoke to a homeless person. She lives on Hudson Street in the West Village, inside a hut she created with layers of plastic held together with large clips that seal the opening when she leaves for the day. It’s located right in front of a cowboy-clothing store and constructed over a supermarket-shopping cart, which serves as its foundation. At first glance several months ago, I thought the hut was a bunch of clear plastic garbage bags awaiting a pickup. At second glance, I saw it was someone’s home.
I was annoyed with its presence but started looking for the occupant, who turned out to be a woman in her 50s who today was shoveling snow. Snow! Where did she get a shovel for snow? She wears good athletic shoes and layers of decent-looking clothing and I’ve watched as she takes her little cart and leaves for the day. I’ve imagined that she goes somewhere to use a toilet, gets some food and picks up little odds and ends, the stuff we all gather when we’re doing errands.
When snow began falling again today, I noticed she was outside her hut looking at the scaffolding that had just gone up right next to her home. I wondered what she thought of it, whether the construction noise bothered her. I wondered if the new scaffolding would make her leave. We had spoken to the police a few weeks ago when it was zero degrees and they sent a couple of officers over to speak with her, but she wasn’t going anywhere and they didn’t want to create an “event.”
I walked over this morning and asked if I could buy her a cup of soup at the little store right next to where she’s living. She said, “No, people think there are homeless people, but I’m fine.”
I looked at her, I mean, really looked at her, and saw a woman who wore bright-red lipstick and seemed kind of with-it at first glance. She smelled the way people smell when they’ve stopped bathing, a mixture of old sweat and suffering that has nowhere to go. She puttered with metal clips holding her clear plastic walls together and looked right at home, someone doing their morning chores. Her crimson lips were perfectly drawn, unsmeared. They meant a lot to her.
Her voice was the same as the voices I grew up with. I said, “You sound Russian, my babushka was also Russian, she came from Chernigov.”
She turned toward me. I was suddenly important, no longer a vagrant intruder.
“From Chernigov?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “from Chernigov, and my babushka spoke to me in Yiddish.” That was a leap of faith. I had told my husband weeks earlier that I had a strange feeling the woman was Jewish. He wondered why I would think that, but it was a hunch, almost like I was being stalked by God himself and needed to know something deeper about the woman.
“Ikh red a bisl yidish,” she answered, and that was when my heart broke. Suddenly this woman on Hudson Street was no longer just a homeless person, but my grandmother Dvorah Leah and aunts Ruchel, Rivka and Haika, who were pushed into a train more than 60 years ago and crushed or gassed on their way to Treblinka.
The homeless woman with red lips was all women throughout history. Driven to the end, to that place from which there is no return, she settled on a sidewalk she felt was safe, a West Village homestead where she suspected she wouldn’t be harmed.
“Ikh hof az ir vet zayn gezunt,” I said. An absurdity. It was freezing outside. I was wishing she’d stay healthy, but didn’t know what else to say. She answered, “Yo, mir darfn zayn gezunt,” as if I were an old friend and was suddenly going to boil some water for tea and serve a plate of cookies. Maybe I need to do that, serve some tea in a glass and bring some sugar cubes for her to put between her teeth the way Russians do. Hell, she can reject me, but how can I live with myself if I don’t even try to learn her name.
Roseline Glazer is a writer living in New York.