Gary Percesepe

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.