This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade's photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
This year, I invited people from Hunts Point, Bronx to my Queens apartment for Thanksgiving. Michael, a homeless transsexual heroin addict, alone, came.
Twenty-four hours after Thanksgiving dinner, I found myself staring into my fridge with its leftover mac 'n cheese and green bean casserole, crying.
I extended holiday offers to several people from Hunts Point, people who have become friends over this past year. I was happy to take whoever would come. Two days ago, Jen, a prostitute, texted me and declined for herself and her pimp, Charlie, saying that she was sick, that she couldn't make it. Sick, not scared or uncomfortable.
My text with Jen. Me in green, her in white.
Another Jennifer, a crack addict, said she was cooking a big meal for her family, that she was working the streets to save money for all the food. Food, not drugs.
Jennifer on Thanksgiving Eve. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.
In this manner, Thanksgiving invitations and promised appearances dwindled to only Michael from the neighborhood.
Initially, my concern, selfishly, was for me. I had vague peripheral worries -- what if Michael stole something? what if he brought drugs to the house? what if he freaked out the non-Hunts Point folks at the dinner table?
Today, I found nothing stolen, not that I'd mind so much if I did. Michael did shoot heroin inside the apartment. He and my normal-life friends talked New York and made jokes, perhaps out of deference to me, me who wanted it to work so badly.
Thanksgiving didn't happen like I thought it would happen. It didn't go smoothly with a ramshackle and awkward mix of people.
My friends and I were cooking the turkey when Michael entered the house, escorted by Chris Arnade who had driven from Brooklyn to lend a ride. The slight 5'1" man was weighed down with bags fastened by knots. He abandoned his cargo in the hallway and ate a proffered red velvet cupcake, lamenting the difficulty he had found copping drugs, before shirking away to shoot up in my bathroom. My friends, warned as they had been, exchanged glances. Chris and I went to observe the drug use.
Michael after shooting up in my bathroom. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.
After his hit, Michael overturned his bag on the tiled bathroom floor, a cascade of travel-sized bottles to sort. He gave me "Being Sexy" hair gel. I gave him a pair of socks.
Michael sorting. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.
I offered him a shower and handed him a towel. (It wasn't the food he really wanted, it was the shower.) He came out of the bathroom nothing short of two-and-a-half hours later, after having turned it into a spa. His hair was the cleanest I've seen it, soft brown tresses past his shoulders. He opened the bathroom door to call me for a once-over before presenting himself at dinner: fresh makeup, thick mascara and dangling earrings. "Do I look like a total prostitute?" He was proud.
He looked beautiful.
Over his two plates of dinner, he and my friends joined in to make fun of me: they talked fashion, labels about which I knew little. Afterwards, we ate dessert, played Candyland and watched Edward Scissorhands on my couch. Michael painted his nails purple-grey then fell asleep against my shoulder, legs curled. It felt sweet, routine; absurd to how I see him every day on the streets.
I packed food in tupperware for him to take back, for others he saw, for himself later. Before returning with Chris, he commented on how quiet my street was, how nice a neighborhood.
Yesterday was wonderful, probably my best Thanksgiving ever. That's what I want to say. In reality, I don't know if what I did was good. I thought it was something small I could do, to offer food to those I consider my friends. But by reaching out in such an intimate way to those in Hunts Point, did I unintentionally create discomfort, or lend a look into how life could be, only to snatch it away? Was it a selfish thing (me with my house and shower) to have done, to appease my own guilt of having a Thanksgiving dinner, my way of coping with the supreme inequalities that exist ten minutes from my apartment? I wonder if Michael came along to appease Chris and I, a small sacrifice to make us happy. I should have recognized the difficulty he, and others I invited, faced beforehand, but in my excitement, I didn't. Now, I can only hope the day didn't make him miserable.
Those struggling with addiction and ensconced in poverty have needs that often run in opposition to one another: housing and stability, freedom and self-awareness, an environment that won't enable drug use. Besides encouraging rehab and detox, perhaps we who work with them can never know exactly what we can do to help, offer no sure-fire life balm. Maybe positive help is an offer of companionship on a holiday. Maybe it's a shower. Maybe it's driving food to Hunts Point. Maybe it's simply being a friend who visits the neighborhood to hear everyday stories.