Tag Archive | homeless

The Oncoming Starbucks Conundrum

Life in New York City includes being on frequent scouting missions for public restrooms. Most subway stations did have some at one time, but those are now closed or off limits to actual paying passengers. If you live and have a social life in New York City, you will also likely become adept at public urination at a certain level.

Clean public restrooms are a sought-after commodity for people in the city. There are even mobile applications for smart phones that help people find the nearest public restroom. This phenomenon is not exclusive to New York, of course, but like everything else, it is more of an intense challenge here. There are too many people vying for comfort and ease in our Gotham, and breakneck competition for the good life means someone has to lose.

Starbucks was the subject of good-guy America’s two-minute hate a few months back when two African American men were arrested a Philadelphia location after using the bathroom and refusing to order anything. The Seattle-based coffee chain closed 8,000 of its stores in the U.S. this past Tuesday for “a conversation and learning session on race, bias and building of a diverse welcoming company.” One note: while it closed all of its “company operated” stores, its 7,000 “licensed stores” at airports, hotels, major grocery stores, and universities, remained open.

Maybe the whole mess could have been avoided if some of the people who objected to the arrests had bought the two men some coffee, but apparently the fight for justice is worth shooting video with your smart phone but isn’t worth springing for an $8 latte.

Outrage quickly spread and there were calls for boycotts of the ubiquitous coffee chain.  I was way ahead of the curve before it became uncool to get coffee there. Starbucks injects unneeded pretention into buying coffee. I refuse to use its bogus jargon that calls a small coffee a “tall.” Just let me order a large coffee (which I never see on their menu; you have to know to order the “coffee of the day” if you want to get anything resembling a regular cup of coffee—please spare me that nonsense). I prefer to drink the free coffee they have at the office where I work. If I’m going to get coffee from a store, I’ll go to 7 Eleven or to any local corner deli or bodega, which usually have decent coffee and will be happy to take your money without putting on airs.

Just about everyone agrees that arresting people for loitering in a coffee shop is excessive. If police arrested everyone who went into a Starbucks just to use the bathroom there would be more Americans in jail than out of jail.

Starbucks’ continuing mea culpa included a public announcement that anyone can use any Starbucks bathroom at any time without making a purchase.

That’s both good and bad news. The good news is: If you are starting to get desperate for a restroom you know you can walk into a Starbucks and stand on the (now likely longer) line to access a legal toilet. The bad news is: Now everyone knows that. The company is going out of its way to welcome people who are not customers. When people can’t be turned away, the kind of people who show up are people who would normally get turned away.

This will make everything more crowded, and will also bring in more homeless people. This will get worse in the winter time, and if homeless people can’t be dissuaded from camping out there, customers will start turning away.

A few months ago, I met a friend for coffee at Grand Central Terminal, where they have tables and several coffee shops. The MTA has let the homeless problem at Grand Central get out of hand again, and while I was able to find a place to sit and have coffee with a friend, the presence of the homeless was everywhere.

Another issue that arises with unlimited bathroom access is that of drugs. We are in the midst of a drug use crisis that few have seen in their lifetimes involving opiates. Will Starbucks be the new injection site for addicts? The bathroom lines will be even longer when more people start overdosing in them.

One issue that’s become lost in this discussion is the welfare of Starbucks employees. Their jobs are tough enough, especially in light of this recent publicity, and they now have to clean up after a bigger swath of the general public, including more homeless and drug addicts. All official hand-washing aside, do you want someone who just cleaned a horrendous restroom to be handling your iced coffee and banana bread? Me neither.

If Starbucks becomes an overcrowded mess as America’s new homeless shelter or heroin shooting gallery, it will no longer be America’s preferred “third place.” Why shouldn’t people bring a bagged lunch when they visit the city and take advantage of the space, bathrooms, and free Wi-Fi at Starbuck’s? So what is the plan to counter the potential deluge of homeless and drug addicts?

I wish the chain the best of luck in navigating this. I will add them to my own mental list of available public restrooms, but only to be sought in desperate times, and I’ll try to buy something.

Looking like a homeless person while going to buy bagels

Doing my part to help the cause and help bring about the rise of the Nietzschean Übermensch, I am happy to report that my wife and I recently celebrated the birth of our third child, a healthy baby girl.

While my wife is still recovering and helping care for our newborn at the hospital and our older girls are spending time with helpful grandparents, I am home alone to try to ready our apartment. I came home after spending a few days at the hospital and managed to get a good night’s sleep for the first time in several days.

Hungry for something to eat before starting down my long to-do list, I put on whatever clothes were convenient and at hand and headed out to buy a bagel.

I wear a camouflage baseball cap for practical purposes, one being that horrible sweat stains that would turn a solid-colored hat into some kind of grotesque greasy tie-dye won’t show up on a hat that is already a patchwork of colors. My Georgia Bulldogs hunting camouflage hat makes me look like a backwoods redneck compared to most of New York City, and I’m OK with that. I actually do go hunting and watch college football if that makes a difference.

I was also wearing olive drab cargo shorts. Cargo shorts are considered unfashionable, but I like having pockets to put things in. I put functionality over fashion every time. I’d rather look like a slob and not lose my cell phone or wallet. I also had on an olive drab t-shirt that depicts an American flag constructed from grenades and rifles. It was a gift from my brother, a former Marine.

It might also be worth noting that I’m wearing a plastic hospital bracelet that allows me to visit my wife and newborn in the hospital, and that because we had to be at the hospital very early in the morning and I stayed there through the first night and into the second, that I had not shaved or showered for three days.

Not until I started down the stairs of my building did I realized that I looked like a homeless person and probably smelled like one too. That it reached 85 degrees by 9 a.m. didn’t help my case either. I felt the rays of the sun baking my greasy skin like a fine glaze being put on a pastry.

I felt like a load of hot garbage and hoped that the good people at JK Bakery wouldn’t recoil in horror or ask me to leave their store. I go there often enough that they hopefully recognize me and realize that maybe I’ve had a rough couple of days. It’s one of my favorite stores in the neighborhood and one of the best bagel shops in New York – I’ll put it up against any other bagel store – they make the bagels there and it’s a no-nonsense place.

JK Bakery did not disappoint. Despite my looking like an escaped mental patient, they served me promptly and I was soon enjoying a delicious bagel. I bought a few extra to bring my wife.

One of the things I like best about New York is that even though it’s a place of high fashion, it’s also a place where people make it a point of pride not to give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of them or their clothes. And it remains a place where tired fathers can occasionally enjoy a delicious bagel in peace.

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.

Bum Coin Mystery Still Unsolved

A little more than two years ago I found a strange object in downtown Manhattan and I have been puzzled by it and would like to learn its origins. I am reopening the case as I remain curious as to its origins.

I spotted it as I walked past Delmonico’s restaurant. I noticed what appeared to be an odd coin sitting on the edge of the landing.

The coin is roughly the size of a quarter and appears to be plaster. It resembles a quarter that has been plastered over. On one side reads “Give Money,” and the other side reads, “To Bums.” Underneath that is the cryptic “bw 12.”  Should I take that to mean that this was created by an artist with the initials B.W. in 2012?

Is this perhaps a coin created by a mysterious artist? Has some anonymous artists been handing out coins with the insistence that recipients leave one in a public place? Have I found such a coin?

When first mentioning this find a few years ago, a few people posted comments that they found these coins elsewhere in downtown Manhattan. None of the others who found them had any clue where they came from.

If you have any clue as to the origins of this coin, please let me know. Until someone tells me otherwise, I’m going to assume it’s a priceless Banksy work that will be worth millions of dollars when I am ready to sell it to a fancy art collector

But whether it’s the work of a well-known artists or not, it’s anonymous public art that is looking to both entertain and provoke thought. Someone took the effort to make something solely for the purpose of provoking a change in the general public as well as the free enjoyment of the work itself.

Would it be a violation of the aesthetic to reveal the artist’s name if I learned it? If the artist contacts me first and lets me know who they are, I would honor their request to remain anonymous.

And while I very much appreciate finding this piece of art, I have not heeded the strange coin’s advice. Giving money to bums is a bad idea. Most of them will spend the money on drugs and alcohol and handing over your money will only encourage them to stay bums. There are plenty of legitimate homeless charities you can give to if you want to help the homeless and destitute. They should know that our streets and subways are a not place of bounty and willing donors.

I promise to keep the coin as an interesting work of art, and will only sell it if it is given a ridiculously high valuation or I become poor and desperate to sell anything of value. Until then, the coin stays with me and the bums will not get it.

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