A fun article for all you stoop-lovers out there!
She tells me I can call her one of three names: Lucille, Lou, or Lulu. She does not like being associated with Lucille Ball, and she thinks Desi Arnaz was an awful comedian.
“Names are important,” I say, lamely trying to compensate for the fact that the first thing I did was associate her name with Lucille Ball. She nods, smiling, forgiving my mistake.
“It’s alright honey, just don’t do it again.”
Lucille and I are sitting in the basement of Grand Central Station. It’s November, exactly one month after Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City, mangling the urban fortress into an apocalyptic mess of flooding, closures, power outages, and fire. Lucille has been homeless for the last three years. Before that, she worked for the city parks department for about as long as she can remember, but a few years back, she started having health problems.
“When I first lost my job, because of my knee, I thought things would be ok with the pension check I’d be getting. But a few months later, I lost my apartment, and things just all snowballed after that.” She shifts in her seat, shaking her head.
“I was in the shelter system for a little while … I tell you, I was in between four shelters for the first part of that first year, four separate shelters. Want to know what happens when a person moves around like that for long enough?”
I nod yes.
“After nine months in the shelter system, they kick you out onto the streets and say you have to wait a year if you want to get back in. A whole year. That’s what you gotta do if you want to prove that you’re really a homeless person. That was Bloomberg’s idea. Only after that will they start to help you find a more permanent place.”
“Is that why you started coming here, to Grand Central?” I ask her after a moment.
“You bet,” she says, leaning against her cheek. “I think lots of people come here just like I did… it’s safe here. There’s even a program they have to help us out. The, um, the BRC I think is what it’s called.”
“Sounds like it’s kind of a good place to come if you don’t have anywhere else,” I say.
“You bet,” Lucille says, “you bet.”
Lucille and I sit in silence for a minute. Then I ask her how she and her friends did during the hurricane.
“Well Grand Central shut down for a few days I think.” She says, “They made us all leave the night before the storm came… I’m pretty sure it’s one of the only times they’ve shut this place up like that. Kind of crazy.”
Lucille pauses, turns to look behind her, and asks the man sitting there, “Hey Dave, how long was this place shut up during the storm? About a week, right?”
The man nods.
“Yup, about a week I’d say,” Lucille says, turning back to me to reconfirm.
“Did you guys have somewhere to go during the storm,” I ask her, “somewhere to stay out of the rain?”
“Oh yeah, yeah. Thankfully someone found out there was a temporary shelter opening up around the Upper East Side, so we all headed up there. Turned out we got to spend a week in Hunter College.”
She stops for a moment, and the tone of her voice shifts.
“They had beds and food, toiletries even. It was kind of nice not to have to worry about that stuff for a change, not to have to find it all over the place.”
“How have things been since the storm?” I ask. “Have things changed for all you guys?”
She thinks for a moment. Looks over her shoulder at the group of men behind her, (which I am starting to understand she spends most of her time with).
“Well, after that first week they shut the temporary shelter down. They kicked everybody out, not just us, and suggested we could try a couple other places. But the guys and I knew it’d be a mess at that point to find somewhere new.” She shrugs. “If one place was closing up, that meant the rest of em’ probably were too.”
“What did you guys decide to do after that, after you were kicked out?” I ask.
Lucille laughs, her body shaking with the chuckles. “Ha, whad’ya think we did? We came back to this place.”
With the first semester of grad school finished, it seemed like high time I make a post on “I took to my stoop”! First though, a little note of thanks:
Readers who followed the blog in the summer and fall might remember that in September I started working towards my PhD in Socio-Cultural anthropology at Harvard University. The last few months in Cambridge have been both challenging and invigorating, but in a way that I feel I should admit I very inadequately anticipated. Yes, classes kept me on my toes, and reading assignments were hefty. But what strikes me most in reflecting on my first months here in Cambridge, is that I feel blessed by the incredible community of intellectuals I am fortunate to be called a part of. Somehow, in preparing for graduate school, I never factored in how much influence my peers — with their own individual humors and specialities and passions — would have on my work. I write this post, therefore, with a deepening appreciation for the discipline of anthropology, but also with an equal sense of thanks for the people who will help guide me in the next six years in the process of “getting” anthropology. You are all an inspiration to me, every day.
Having noted the people that got me through, most of my time this semester was committed to a continuation of the research I started over the course of my senior year at Sarah Lawrence College. Throughout the summer and fall of 2011, and the spring of 2012, I conducted ethnographic research on homelessness in Grand Central Station. This fall, resuming that work, I took three separate trips down to New York. I continued to meet many new people, hear many more stories, and in sum, gather a deeper understanding of a space that I believe is politically, socially, and culturally rich.
One of the projects I worked on in the last month of school was the recording and editing of a radio piece about a woman I got to know in the spring of 2012, and her use of Grand Central as an alternative place (to homeless shelters) to spend time. After my much too lengthy hiatus from blogging for “I took to my stoop,” I’d like to share that radio piece with all of you.
(The recording is called “Terminal,” and runs for approximately 13 and a half minutes.)