There’s an old saying: “In hell, the chopsticks are very long, so long people can’t reach their mouths and they starve to death. In heaven, the chopsticks are the exact same length, but in heaven the people feed one another.” Last night I walked on Third Avenue, near Third Street and Eighth and The Bowery Mission. Through the Lower East Side. The East Village. Noho. The same exact set of blocks that in the 60s was simply known as The Bowery. Desolation. Pre-Woodstock. Skid Row. It was a black-and white-photograph of people down on their luck. Exceedingly down. Nearly invisible. The typical age was between 18 and 80. It was a place where you could get a cold-water, unheated apartment for $40 a month. And The Bowery Mission was there with food every day, and the mission fed thousands of people then, and it still does today.
There was a stoop at 355½ Bowery and a third floor loft owned by a friend. In the midst of the greyness that seemed to envelop the streets, there was his cold water loft with oil paintings drying, and a cat patiently waiting for food, and Callas and Pavarotti filling the air. And there was a homeless man, taking refuge on the stoop outside the door to that building–every day, every night, and his body was reflected in the plate glass window of an adjoining second-hand store. It was his stoop, no one else claimed it. There were hundreds of such claimed stoops in 1960s New York on The Bowery. Today it’s Noho, and walk up apartments go for $3,000 a month. But in the 60s there was a stoop at 355½ and a man was always curled in the corner and his face was always reflected in glass, and his eyes were filled with a terrible story. He was between 18 and 80. I don’t remember that man’s name if in fact I ever did know it, but his reflection has never once left my mind.
–Magie Dominic is a Canadian poet and artist. Her new memoir, Street Angel, will be published in August 2014.