March 21, 2015 § 5 Comments
As is often the case, my most beautiful moment while living homeless in New York was born out of an ugly moment. I hadn’t seen it coming, and in some respects was unprepared for it. So far, nearly every homeless person I had met on the streets had been happy for me to spend time with them and document their lives. But in Preston, a black man in his early 60s who spent his days collecting cans, I found a lot of anger that, by all accounts, had no outlet.
I became that outlet.
We were standing in a subway car at the time. I had followed Preston as he worked his way down from the entrance to the 5 train at Union square, with four industrial bags as tall as him that were full with cans for recycling. The bags were so big and heavy he could only take two at a time. He went back and forth, continually trying to catch up with himself.
Preston began shouting at me pretty much from my introduction. He was angry about many things, poverty, the distribution of wealth, a system designed to keep the poor poor, and the racism he witnessed and experienced every day.
“The black man is good enough to die face down in the mud for his country. But he ain’t good enough that he can get a decent job, a yellow cab, a safe place to sleep after he gave his youth to this here USA!”
Preston shouted at me all the way to the 149th street, where he exited the train with two of the bags.
“Well, what are you doing now?’ he demanded when I followed him with the other two bags.
Preston was a small, but strong man. Collecting cans in Manhattan was something he did with the seriousness and discipline of a small business owner trying to get to the next level. Only Preston wasn’t aiming for any next level. There was no promotion or better working conditions. Just him, his trolley, his bags and whatever weather was thrown at him.
I followed Preston, with the surprisingly really heavy bags, to the recycling station. I think the expression of shock and sadness on my face when we arrived was in part what softened Preston.
After the recycling Preston showed me where he lived. Due to an accident with a bungee cord that hospitalized him, Preston had been given one-room digs with a shared bathroom. He showed me quickly around, and then started showing me pictures of his granddaughter. He was alive now, animated and smiling as he told of how she always tried to get a dollar out of him.
To see that transition, from the angriest man I had ever met to the smiling, wonderful grandfather remains one of the most special things I have ever witnessed. Preston went from being closed, suspicious and aggressive to open, warm and giving. It gave me a sense of hope, knowing that something as simple as a conversation could turn back the clocks until a former, happier self emerged. He was not lost. He was still in there.
Alan Emmins is an English writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. His books have been published in the UK, US and Japan, and his articles have appeared in Time Out, Dazed & Confused, GQ, Playboy, The New York Post, The New York Daily News and many others.