A long time ago, when my family was still intact, we had a box. An old, time softened cardboard box that contained all of our Christmas decorations. Inside there were funny little wax covered bows in different colors, from the late 1960’s. They didn’t have hooks, instead they had strings that were looped to be hung on individual tree branches. Their waxy coating flaked away more and more each year, and they were ugly. But we hung them anyway, along with my favorites, the hand blown Polish Christmas balls with Santa Claus, snowmen, and various other similarly themed items whose exact likenesses escape me now. I loved them, the delicate glass balls, colored pale blue and faded red and pearly white, early seventies colors, not the deeply garish ones seen today. It was Christmas time, Christmas for everybody….warm blankets, heated living spaces, a refrigerator full of food, all of the expectations that electrical current running through a modern home brings. It never once occurred to me that these things were paid for by my father, who worked himself raw attending night school while at the same time working a full time day job. I had no knowledge of or experience with not having enough, even though, technically, we were not quite middle class. I couldn’t conceive of a life without Christmas. Or imagine people who didn’t have everything they needed, and as I got older I still never understood anything other than having what I needed. I never really got the picture until I started taking pictures.
The Church Of St. Mary The Virgin
The first time I was cold. I was headed toward Times Square. Underneath the scaffolding which obscured the beauty and nature of the structure was a sign placed on the sidewalk, and I noticed suddenly that there was an old church, and the sign was signaling its presence. I climbed the short flight of stone steps, and noted the worn metal of the door handles, the depth of color, the shadows and the quiet and I stepped inside.
The first thing is the smell….of old wood, and incense, and a damp, musty smell of old clothing. Incense imbedded in every surface, its presence and strength at once soothing and unsettling. The second thing is the sanctuary of the place. There are signs stating that all are welcome to seek respite. A long aisle down the center divides the old pews, and to the left in the darkness and tranquility of this church so close to the pandemonium of Times Square were a dozen people. A dozen or so, hunched and shapeless in the shadowy interior, all sleeping. Their breathing is the only sound when there is no service. As I walked forward, I saw that most were men. I saw that each man had a folded cloth or towel or sweatshirt folded and placed neatly on the back of the pew in front of him. Most were resting their heads on the pews, cushioned by whatever the person had to fold beneath his head. In this way people are able to sleep upright and retain some privacy. The posture also allows for some security and self preservation, as opposed to being in a lying down, less defensible position. It seemed that there was a sense of truce in the space…..sleeping unmolested in the relative warmth of the church, the men were completely wiped out. Not drunk……exhausted.
Shapeless clothing and layers of old jackets and hooded sweatshirts and suitcases obscuring a small and forgotten population of men that few know are there, trying to sleep after a night spent on guard, respite until the church doors are closed and locked before 7 pm, and then back out into the cold. Not everyone is blameless, and on my third visit I felt a small and menacing draft of fear at a near confrontation. The church workers silently refill candles and empty the locked donation boxes, and the silence of the place could easily serve to cloak the sounds of a breathless struggle.
Once there were three little kittens, and a mommy and dad cat. Now there are two little kittens, and only a lone sentinel of a mother cat, enduring in her silence, as she guts it out on the corner in front of the Whole Foods in Union Square On 14th Street. Someone stole daddy cat, and one of the kittens is gone, and there’s no one who will say what happened. A young couple, both struggling with addiction, use signs and felines to capture the sensitivities of those passing, and receive donations to keep themselves drifting. I see them on very cold days, cat and kittens on display. I used to believe strongly in the sanctity of the bond between all homeless people and their pets….but in truth it’s not always in the best interests of the animals. Especially when used for panhandling, it has only recently occurred to me that it’s unfair. Love aside. Because love isn’t always enough, contrary to the prevailing notion that it can and will conquer all obstacles and differences and evils. It’s just woefully insufficient, if it’s really truly present at all.
A little tragedy occurred here. Framed within the kitten’s ears is the shape of a girl. The dark required a wide open lens, and depth of field shortcomings render her beauty invisible. She wore over-the-knee, medium heeled black boots and a short black dress that was modern and pretty, tastefully done as opposed to being bare and exposed. She carried three silver party balloons, and had natural, dark golden hair that was illuminated by health and youth and the streetlights nearby. She squatted suddenly as I photographed the kitten pictured here, and began what was an earnest, studied negotiation with the male partner of the young and very strung out owner of the cats, a woman in her twenties who sits most days with the animals and her sign, blankets and cat food and baskets full of belongings, in almost all weather conditions.
I changed positions, and found myself listening closely as she tried diplomacy and reserve, offering to first buy food for the animals…..gracefully transitioning to her real purpose, which was to buy one of the cats to give it a home, in exchange for money and food for the cat’s owners. Her offer was met with defensive anger, and utter refusal. Her sense of urgency and frustration was carefully camouflaged by her ability to maintain a neutral expression that I’ve learned to project myself when photographing the homeless pets of panhandlers in New York City.
She walked away with her balloons. I spoke with her….she wanted to argue but recognized the futility. As she disappeared into the night down 14th Street, I felt deeply the sadness and irony and nearly criminal neglect that this refusal revealed. The little cat that missed a life of comfort and love and security with someone’s beautiful daughter living on her own in New York City still inhabits the corner near Whole Foods, unaware of the missed veterinary care and holiday gift wrapping and scented candles and cupcakes that no doubt inhabit the life of the young woman that walked off empty handed that night.