Back in Skel Country
Circumstances have smiled upon me and I found myself with new and more gainful employment. I made the move from journalism to “the dark side” of public relations. My days are still filled trying to understand the minutia of financial terms and technological jargon, I’m just writing for a different audience.
The new job is a shorter commute and is in the Flatiron district of New York. It’s less than two blocks from Madison Square Park and only one block away from the 6 train. The office is in a small building on 24th Street. It’s convenient to both a 7-Eleven and a deli, and near a Baruch College building.
The new office is also only a few doors down from some kind of halfway house or rehab center. There’s no sign on the building indicating this, and a cursory web search of the address revealed nothing about its current use. You can tell what it is by the people who congregate outside and can be seen coming and going. Even before I discovered its location, I knew there was some sort of facility in the area because of the skels I would see on the street.
Skel is an antiquated term meaning street criminal but it’s a catch-all word that is used to include any kind of troubled sort given to criminality, and the homeless and mentally ill seemingly fit into this category.
It’s easy to pick out the skels on the street. They are dirty and wrinkled. They are not homeless-level dirty and don’t have the mile-away stink that typical street bums do. They do not carry around excessive luggage or tons of crap in shopping carts; they have a place to live. But street people have a way of standing out, at least in today’s less crime-ridden city. Twenty years ago things were different and many parts of the city were blanketed with homeless and other skels. Today Manhattan does not have too many poverty pastures. There’s still plenty of poor people in New York, but the space allowed for skels has diminished significantly.
When I worked in the lower part of midtown Manhattan about 12 years ago, the area was populated with a lot of street people. There was a methadone clinic across the street from the building where I worked and some kind of halfway house was not far either. One time I was on my way out of a Duane Reade drug store after buying a few things when a man and woman rushed up to the counter. The man was holding a $10 bill.
“I need change right away! I have to pay the taxi!”
“They’re going to send him to jail if he doesn’t pay!” his female companion said.
The clerks behind the counter shook their heads lazily.
There was no cab outside with an angry driver waiting.
Another time I was walking around on my lunch break and I saw a two men approach a man from behind, one flashed a badge and the two plainclothes cops took the man by the arms and pinned him against the building where I worked.
“Where’s the weed?” one of the cops asked him. I didn’t bother to stick around to see how this encounter ended. When I returned from my lunch break, they were gone.
There is both a Taco Bell and a White Castle on that block of 8th Ave. and 36th Street, which is heavenly unless you are so poor you really can’t afford either. I was coming off of more than a year of unemployment and I was so poor that my lunch sometimes consisted of the free snacks that the failing company offered. Still, the kinds of human abominations that frequented the area were seemingly from a different era. A woman complained to her friends about not getting what she needed from the methadone clinic. Random skels shouted their opinions for the world to hear.
Despite the improved conditions in the Big Apple over the last 20-plus years, New York is still famous for its seedy element. Before it was populated with fancy hotels and trendy restaurants, The Bowery was famous for its many flop houses, where people paid low rent to live in rooms no bigger than a jail cell. It was a world-famous refuge for drunks, drug addicts and criminals and there are still some homeless charities left on The Bowery, which is also known for its stores that providing lighting and restaurant supplies.
The residents of the nearby halfway house are easy to spot. They are dirty and disheveled. But even if you cleaned them up and dressed them in tuxedos and ball gowns, they would still stand out because they’ve acquired such gaunt features and acquired the mannerisms of the permanently destitute.
People often wear their desperation outwardly, and for the lifelong criminal and drug addict these are impossible to hide. Despite all of their efforts, you can hear the junkie quavering in their voice, sense the hurting shiftiness in their eyes, and know to avoid them.
Sometimes you can get fooled, but not for long. One time a man in a suit waved to me and held out his hand to shake mine. He looked a lot like someone I knew so I assumed I knew him and that I had forgotten his name, which I do all the time. Once he started talking though, he started blathering on about his wife being somewhere and he needed money for a cab etc. Damn, I got suckered into listening to a panhandler. I didn’t give him any money but felt like a sucker anyway.
No matter how real or sincerely someone may seem, you’re a damn fool if you give one cent to a panhandler. Even the most bleeding-hearted skel lover admits that the overwhelming majority of money you give to panhandlers goes to purchasing drugs and/or alcohol.
For some reason we allow people to live worse than animals on the streets and subways. If a dog looked and smelled like that, they’d be taken away and given shelter. Somehow it’s deemed liberating to watch people wallow in their own filth, but there’s nothing progressive or enlightening about it at all.
Eventually gentrification will continue and the city and private charities will realize they can generate more revenue for their cause by selling the valuable real estate they hold in Manhattan and move their services to less expensive neighborhoods.
There’s a belief among many artists and poets that the destitute and poor some kind of unique insight or soulful legitimacy. Since they are not blessed with American success they are not cursed by it, or so the logic goes. But you’ll find that most bums on the street are just that: bums. They’re every bit as shallow and ignorant as the douchebag financier or the fashionable hipsters we love to hate.
The world will never be rid of street people. New York’s dwindling clans of them are still around, but their roaming grounds have been sharply reduced and can’t support as large a population.