Alphabet City – Homeless Action in NYC

Written by Rosh Koch

Alphabet City was never on the tour schedule, but there we were on the lower east side of Manhattan. Neither AJ (pictured left) nor I are particularly adept at city life; AJ had never even been to New York until that night.

Touring with AJ, of And Ever Endeavor, is always a special treat for me. AJ is one of my dearest friends, whom I can confide in with my deepest and most intimate thoughts. His music is something to behold with its deep harmonies, seemingly aligned with the heavens, (http://myspace.com/andeverendeavor).

Earlier that night we were at a coffee shop in Allendale, NJ where AJ was performing. Our friends David and Lauren Ranzino had recently started (http://www.thelovealliance.net). The Love Alliance is about putting people into action for a better, more loving world. Each month, they present an “action project,” and the project this month was to make and deliver sandwiches to the homeless. Since AJ and I had no homeless people in our rural home town, we felt it would be prudent to share our food with the street people in NYC once the set was over.

One of the characters that we met at the coffee shop, named Clifford, told us of a place near the East Village called Tompkins Square Park where homeless and squatters often frequent. Since we had no other directions of where to go, we accepted the challenge and made our way to what is locally referred to as, Alphabet City.

Tompkins Square Park was the host to a pretty big riot back in the late summer of ’88. Anarchists and homeless activists from outside the neighborhood began throwing M80s and rocks at police who had arrived to evict a large encampment of homeless people from the park. The police had been sent there to enforce a curfew enacted in response to over a decade of complaints from residents about the round-the-clock lawlessness and noise emanating from the park. The police showed little restraint, with several demonstrators injured, and much ensuing public disapproval.

Armed with only a few loaves of bread, some cans of peanut butter, jars of jelly, and no clue how to do any of this, we embarked upon the corner of 7th and A. NYC is a big place for two country bumpkins; but we had to get started somewhere if we wanted to feed the 5000! After walking around the area, we discovered how close we were to the legendary CBGB’s venue. The local culture was alive. Bars and after hours clubs were over flowing and lines poured out the doors and down the block. While club music filled the streets, a a movie was being filmed a few blocks away. I said a prayer and asked God to get the party started, (a bit fearful- not knowing what or how to do what we wanted to do).

Almost immediately, we started seeing the homeless community members pop out. Across the street from where our van was parked, a small crowd of people gathered. We started slapping PB&J sandwiches together and putting them in plastic bags. A gentleman came up to us and we handed him some sandwiches. He asked us for money, but only bills. AJ asked him why only bills and he said he would take change. So I dropped a zip lock bag full of pennies, dimes, and nickels, (maybe 7 or 8 dollars worth) into his hat and he was overwhelmed.

Another man approached us as we took ten more sandwiches across the street. He informed us of his hungry friends on the corner, so we enthusiastically went on over. At this corner we met a happy couple that snagged 3 or 4 sandwiches before walking off hand in hand and covered in smiles. There was a Jamaican man who was leaving to go smoke a joint (or so he said) and an older guy sitting on the ground, drinking Colt 45 from a small paper cup, and a rowdy old codger with a cane. We offered them the sandwiches and ended up being entertained and tied up in stories and conversations for hours. The guy with the cane was the outspoken leader. He called himself the “garbage can man.”

He had been living on the streets for a while, and before that was active in the punk rock scene as a bouncer at a few of the clubs. He also boasted of his time spent volunteering at the shelters, time in the marines, and shenanigans as a wayward wandering youth. But he could talk and tell stories all night long. We were joined by another non homeless fellow. He was new to the area, looking for some flavor to spice up his night and thought our little crowd was the place to be. He was wearing a red t shirt that endorsed cocaine. He gave me a weird feeling…as if I was competing with him for these people.

The older man on the ground was known as “Santa Claus.” Santa grew up in a marxist, hippy, artist family. Poverty was in his blood. He had an ingrown resentment for the system through his upbringing. Allegedly he has been squatting on that corner for almost as long as I’ve been alive. A few years back he went into a rehab program connected to the Catholic church. They provided him with a 13 inch color television, a month old tv guide, and a whole lot of boring conversations with some nuns. He got sick of rotting his mind in front of the tv and decided to check out and return to the street. He told us that in there, he felt like he was in jail. There was nothing to do but watch Sesame Street and his hero, Oscar the Grouch.

“In there,” he said, “you had to worry about what to do with your life, how you got there, and what to do next. On the streets you only have to worry about survival — food, beer, smokes, and shelter in the rain.” Santa Claus is 61 and happy living on the streets.

Santa has some crazy addictions, but he’s a sweet heart behind a sour puss. He declined our food offerings because it would interfere with his beer drinking. At one point, a drunken passerby handed him an entire take out meal she just picked up next door. He, in turn, offered it to us.

The other guy we met was …well, a little crazy. He would ramble to himself about absolutely nothing. He was also Jamaican and we never caught his name, but we were blessed with his message. He told AJ that on the streets, it’s not just survival for one’s self, it’s survival for all. If you have extra food or beer, you share. If you have two shirts and your brother has none, you take one off. It was cool, (for lack of better word) to hear this cracked out Jamaican brother unknowingly paraphrase Jesus’ preaching in Luke 3.

“What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.” The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”
“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”
Luke 3:9-11 (The Message)

The homeless folks of Alphabet City are a community of people that care for each other. The sandwiches we made didn’t get eaten by any of guys we talked with. They took all our sandwiches and redistributed them to their friends. To be honest, I think they have a home right there on Avenue A. They have a family: each other. Once 7 AM came, we walked away, humbled, as the sun began to rise.

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me―you did it to me.” Matthew 25:37-40 (The Message)

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  1. Luke says:

    just looking for the shane claiborne interview– can’t find it, thanks.

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