Notes From Buffalo: Friends of the Night People
“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” ~ Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Once a month I volunteer at Friends of the Night People, feeding Buffalo’s homeless on the city’s west side. The building is a quarter mile from my house, but it was cold tonight, so I drove my car. At 4:45 pm, I parked on Hudson, and walked to the corner of Wadsworth.
The line was steady tonight for the first hour, but tapered off after the first hour. I worked the exit door, by the back tables, and visited with the regulars. My job was to open the door for departing guests, making sure that no one tried to re-enter after eating. The rule is that you can stay until 7 pm, but once you leave you’re done. You can’t get back in until the next night. Friends of the Night People has been providing medical care, clothing, and serving hot meals every night, holidays included, for over forty years. Some nights, especially toward the end of the month, almost three hundred people will be served, many of them children. There weren’t many children tonight, but I saw one little girl in a stroller. She had a round face and deep brown eyes, blinking in a kind of babyish half sleep, and looked about six months old. She was attended by two women who shared the handles of the stroller.
A little guy with large hands and a Jets cap was talking shit. No one looked at him, or said anything. Plunking his tray on the table nearest the door, he went back to the serving area for a cup of hot coffee. He tilted to the right at a dangerous angle, dragging his right leg as he walked, like an injured wolf, sideways and forward.
Finally seated, he started a steady commentary about his fellow diners. Addressing a small African American woman seated up front, he called out about how she was tasting that night. Later, he said. I’ll smell you later. The woman nodded slowly, and kept chewing. Hey, Mr. Potato Head, he called out to a heavy set white guy who was making his way slowly to the dining room.
An African American with a striped watch cap sat down at the table across from him. Right in front of me. How ya doing, he asked. OK, I said. It’s cold tonight. Nah, he said. Not yet. He was dressed in a parka, with a fleece jacket underneath, steel toed boots, army green cargo pants. Where do you stay, I asked. He said, around. I have my spots I like.
Potato Head entered the dining room carrying his tray. He was in no mood for the little guy’s shit. They started in on each other, but stopped quickly. They were both working on their food. Macaroni and cheese, rice. Small baked red potatoes, with large dinner rolls. Brownies with blue frosting. Brought and served by church volunteers.
The table filled in with regulars. Their bags were piled on the floor under the table. The guy with the watch cap introduced himself as Mike. Eddie said hi and nodded. Eddie is a Vietnam vet who likes to wear yellow bike goggles. His hair is a long gray mullet, and he smiles a lot. He was cheered a few months back when he wrestled someone to the ground. The guy had been causing trouble, talking smack and stealing food. Eddie jumped him and sat on top of him until the police came and took the guy away. The room cheered.
I live on Porter Avenue, a few blocks from the Peace Bridge to Canada. On sunny mornings, like today, driving west, you can see Porter Avenue’s end at the mouth of Niagara River. Beyond, the shimmer of Lake Erie. It’s so extreme, I always think. If you kept driving, if you just let your car coast downhill without tapping the brakes, you’d be underwater in the swift current of the Niagara River. The famous falls are ten miles to the north. The name seems so appropriate. The Niagara falls—falls into rocks, tumbling down one hundred sixty-seven feet.
I moved here three years after my divorce. A week later, a friend took me to Niagara Falls at night. I stood in the moonlight, looking at the rapids a few feet away, to where the river made its steep descent, crashing below, white under the inky sky. My friend said, don’t even think about putting your hand in the rapids, the river will take you over. I hadn’t been thinking of that at all. Until she said that. I stepped back from the river.
This morning I thought of my ex, wondering where she lived. Somewhere in Missouri, I had heard. The holidays are approaching, Halloween soon, then Thanksgiving and the rest. I was married a long time. We had two children together. We had taken vacations together, often to Montauk, the easternmost point of New York, also an extreme place. There is a wildness there that I like, that had fascinated Walt Whitman. But my ex was a long way from Montauk now, and a long way from Niagara Falls. So are our two kids. One lives in Atlanta, the other in Columbus, Ohio. So, four people, four states. This is the way we live now. Most days it doesn’t feel so bad. But I do wonder sometimes, will we ever be in the same room together, again? The same state?
I rent an apartment in Buffalo, the top floor of a Queen Ann Victorian. I chose it because it had a garage, in consideration of the Buffalo winter, but also because my last two houses were Victorians. But I rent now, I no longer own. Moving, I had rented a U-Haul which, as it turned out, was too small for my stuff. I gave away furniture to friends. Sofa, love seat, computer desk, books, coffee table, lamps, whatever they could carry off. Take it, I said.
It was sad to see my stuff go away, piece by piece, but also a relief. What was I doing with so much stuff? I don’t have a sofa or love seat now, or a lamp or TV or computer in my living room. I have a new Trek racing bike leaning up against the wall. My ex kept all the family photos. She said she would scan them, send them to me, but she hasn’t. I am learning to let go. Practice losing everything—that was a dream I once had. A voice I heard, in this dream I still remember, fifteen years before my divorce. I had no idea.
Touch the earth lightly, I tell myself. I have little food in my refrigerator. Some days, eating seems so much work. People in Buffalo eat large portions at restaurants. I have yet to finish a meal in a restaurant here. I take my food home and place it in the refrigerator. Most of the time, I forget it’s in there, and have to throw it away. When I go to the grocery store, I always use the fifteen item or less line.
I’m tipping into something, but I don’t know what it is. A simpler life, sure. I can feel my life contracting. Shrinking. Consuming less. Taking up less space. Americans take up a lot of room, I’ve decided. More than our share. I have a half-assed approach to things, most of what I do, maybe all of it, is unintentional, but it is what I can manage. I sometimes wonder if I will look back at this time in my life and feel a sort of contentment, about the way things turned out. I met a woman in Los Angeles last year and thought maybe I was in love. She was sure of it. It hardly seemed possible. She lived in the Hollywood Hills, a screenwriter, and was altogether lovely. I still lived in Ohio. We discussed the possibility of my moving in with her. I couldn’t feature it. Though at times I wanted it, wanted her. But in the end, I didn’t want it at all. I broke it off. She didn’t understand. Neither did I. Can we ever know what we want?
Last week, at my church, I was speaking to Jerry Kellman about homelessness. Kellman was the Chicago community organizer who hired a young Harvard graduate named Barack Obama. Obama didn’t last long as a community organizer, as we know, though the reasons he left are worth pondering. As it turns out, Kellman left community organizing for a while, too, not long after Obama. He began to offer trainings in “restorative justice,” trying to wed spiritual practices with community organizing in ways that were transformative for individuals and communities. My church is interested in learning more about “peace circles,” a practice of restorative justice that offers a way out of the “pipeline to prison” that characterizes so many poor neighborhoods in our nation, where kids are introduced to the criminal justice system early in life, often by a cop in a school. In Buffalo, forty-one kids are suspended from school every day. Rather than attempting to bring about reconciliation between the offending party and those who have been victimized, the school cop is called in, and a kid’s prison career is launched. Kellman described to us a better way.
In the course of our conversation, Jerry Kellman mentioned the leading causes of homelessness: substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, lack of affordable housing.
An estimated 100 million people worldwide are homeless, according to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (2005).
Child and family homelessness is growing in the United States at an alarming rate. One in every 45 children in the U.S. is homeless each year.
Last month at Friends of the Night People, I saw a lot of children and young people. They seemed to know their way around the building pretty well. Clearly, they had been there before.
Mike told me that the little guy was called Jimmy. Everyone knew him. He was tolerated by the regulars, despite his toxic stream of racial insults, gay slurs, and misogynist comments about welfare recipients. Why, I asked? Because, Mike said, he cycles. When I asked what he meant, Mike said, “Look, most of the time, Jimmy comes in here and he is quiet as a mouse, he just sits in a corner and doesn’t say a word. Nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. But then, as the month goes on, you can see him getting worked up, like tonight, and pretty soon he’ll wind up on the east side, talking shit to the wrong people, almost begging for it, and someone will kick his ass. That’s why you see him walking like he does. He got the shit beat out of him last month. I keep asking him, man, are you off your meds? And he says no, he goes to the doctor and the doctor tells him, you don’t need meds. And look, he knows everyone! He could be mayor! That dude will be talking some days like he is the sanest man in Buffalo, and then, not long, he is acting up and winds up getting smacked down. It’s almost like he wants it. He needs a regular beating. One day someone on the east side is gonna see him on the street and just run him over.”
Ten minutes later, Jimmy had to be escorted out of the building. The manager took him gently by the arm and told him, if you keep it up, we won’t let you in here for a month. That seemed to calm him down, though he muttered as he walked out. I held the door open for him.
A few minutes later, after wiping the tables, and putting the chairs up, I was walking out the same door. The sky was streaked lavender and lilac. I fingered my car keys. It was three blocks to my car, and I was already cold. I thought: if my car wasn’t there, if I didn’t have car. If I lost my job. If I didn’t have an apartment. The tipping of so small a word, if, if, if. Eddie and some friends were standing outside, sharing a smoke. They nodded to me, and thanked me. It was the thanking that did it.
Gary Percesepe is, among many other things, an editor at New World Writing.