When I was eighteen years old I met an older woman in Manhattan named Ellen. Everyone who went to my university knew her. She was a fixture. Like Amir’s or Mama Joy’s deli or the Cosmo restaurant. A small, quick-moving woman always carrying two or three heavily laden bags with a voice that was pure New York…distilled through years of cigarettes and bus exhaust. Her voice was kind of a female equivalent to Lou Reed’s: smoky, knowing, world-weary.
Ellen was in her late forties. Her politics were radical. An advocate for the homeless. A tireless debater. An opponent of both Reagan and Bush and everything bourgeois. She was an inveterate smoker. Bipolar. A mother of three. A veteran of years of New York politics. And, like tens of thousands of other New Yorkers in 1987, Ellen had no place to live. She slept where she could. She, too, was homeless.
I’m a city kid. I grew up in the Reagan 80’s. Things were tough all over. I worked in soup kitchens as a teen in the midwest. People I knew sometimes passed through the line. In Manhattan things were magnified. On my stretch of Broadway early one morning I once counted twenty-four people sleeping in the space of one block. Where other people, I’m sure, would see Ellen as a “bag lady” and nothing more. I didn’t. It’s never that simple. My friend Karl, a minister’s son coming from the city of Detroit, knew this too. He befriended Ellen and helped her out with food and a place to stay a couple times. It was through Karl that I met Ellen.
What is there to say about the endless coversations that Ellen and I had in diners all over the city? (Tom’s. College Inn. The Mill. Vaselka’s. The Kiev. Leshka’s. Chock Full o’ Nuts.) I don’t know. Ellen was a complex person. She was someone I’d always hoped would get it together enough to write her own story. Hell, I lent her my first electric typewriter (never to be seen again) the summer she found a room in an apartment off 126th and Lexington. She wrote some great letters to me. I still have them somewhere.
But that was so long ago. A year and a half friendship, when you’re eighteen…leaves a mark, but also becomes in some ways a part of your past. To be honest, there is no way I can speak for Ellen. There is no way I can do her justice. Her sense of humor. Her sense of outrage. Her way of interacting with the city. It’s all mixed up in how I see New York, and in some ways, in how I see myself…
I would get calls. It’d be 9:30 at night, or 7 in the morning. Ellen might be at a diner somewhere. She might be in the lobby of my building. She might be freaked out at a hospital emergency room. I’m not rich, but I always had six bucks for a cheap meal and a pack of cigarettes. And I always learned something new from Ellen. About life. About politics. About New York City and the people I shared it with. So I’d go.
I’d meet Ellen at homeless encampments in the subway. Herald Square. Grand Central Terminal. Or at Tompkins Square Park or a nearby squat. New York was different then. Maybe for some the eighties in New York meant glitz and flash. It was also a dirty, crack-smoke-filled decade riven with ruined lives. At one point, the New York Times reported that one in nine New Yorkers used cocaine on a daily basis. From where I stood, that was totally believable.
Ellen was different. She was, let’s face it, mentally ill, but she was also an incredibly smart and fierce observer and reader of the politics of the day. She’d grown up in a prosperous family on the Upper East Side. She’d had two different families. Her grown sons did their best to care for her at times. But they didn’t share her world…and didn’t join it. And Ellen in some ways chose to live the way she did, however desperate and difficult that made her life and those who cared for her.
There is too much that Ellen taught me to convey here. But if I could communicate one essential point it would be this. No one has made as clear for me the connection between poverty and privelege that Ellen did. At her best, she was able to bring humanity, to bring a face and a story to the very real people who found themselves homeless on the streets of New York. She was also able to explain clearly how racism, how economic injustice and pervasive discrimination boxed people in and kicked them to the curb, forced them into lives where they were treated like human trash, and often ended up living a literal reflection of that.
White, middle class kids like me saw the world as “cause and effect.” That was so easy. So simple. You make mistakes, you end up on the street, you end up poor and destitute. Ellen was able to show me how privileged I was. How when I made mistakes….and I did…they were forgiven…solutions were found. She showed me how I saw the world through a lens that made judging other people a very comfortable thing to do. How easy all my assumptions were. How those assumptions always justified…at the end of the day…a course of action that I was going to take anyway. The easy way.
But Ellen took it further than that. Conversation by conversation, example by example…over endless cups of coffee….Ellen showed me how my privelege was actually linked to other people’s suffering, how in order for some to have plenty, plenty others had to have not much. It’s like the line to all the good things in life was six billion long, and I happened to be born (like Ellen herself) right up near the front…
I didn’t earn that. No one does. And there are times, asleep in my comfortable bed in California that I wake with a start. I’m dreaming about a voice from my past. A cigarette-fueled voice from New York City. Someone with whom I’ve lost touch…someone I don’t know what happened to. (I last spoke to Ellen in the early nineties when she was in the hospital for an operation.)
I’d call her my conscience, but that would be lying. I’d call her a lost friend, and that would be closer to the truth. But more and more I feel like there’s something specific to that voice that I can’t quite pin down. On some level…it’s like New York City itself is speaking to me. Telling me to open my eyes. Telling me to wake up.
essay © 2005 paul delehanty / kid oakland