Rene In McDonald’s, Canal Street
I had agreed to meet someone to take some pictures on Christmas Day. I don’t generally prefer to wander with other people for the purpose of shooting street photos because I find that the distraction causes me to miss pictures. It was a very cold Christmas Day, and I went to the meeting place, the McDonald’s on Canal Street. Many people were packed into the place, taking refuge from the strangely penetrating cold air. I saw someone, hunched and swaying over a meal, and of course, I instantly assumed him to be homeless. I wondered if he was drunk, and sleeping in the relative warmth or just fatigued from a night in an edgy shelter situation….my assumptions were incorrect I learned later.
Rene tries to stay alert
He seemed to be struggling to stay awake, or conscious, or so my assumptions went. I felt that inexplicable drive to take his picture, and I crouched near him, despite being moderately embarrassed to be seen by others as I did so. Why did I feel this way? Because I hadn’t yet spoken to him, and I was uncomfortable taking his image in this situation without having first communicated with him. I thought that the picture was important enough to steal, and so I did. For whatever unknown reason, some people just hit me and once I lock on I don’t stop.
I roused him and asked if he needed something. I told him he was falling asleep in his sandwich. Can I get you something? He was slurred a bit, and seemed out of sync with the surrounding hustle and noise of the McDonald’s foot traffic. He was very disturbed by the constant cold draft of the entrance, and couldn’t make peace with the icy blasts that punctuated nearly every moment. His eyes were beautiful and warm and kaleidoscopic. Instantly engaging, and at odds with my initial assumptions. They were alert, and warm, and happy to see me. And it was Christmas Day….and his happiness at seeing me was irresistible.
He wanted hot coffee and I hustled to get it for him. My friend had by this time arrived, a fellow street photographer, and he gave him some fresh orange juice. It was a strange paradox, my assumptions of drunkenness, mental illness, or monumental fatigue caused by too many nights without shelter. I feel stupid now….as I sat, I realized that he didn’t smell of alcohol. His eyes told a different story. He was able to follow the conversation and, although his physical self behaved otherwise, his eyes conveyed no slouch, or sleepiness, or anything at all aside from a pleasant warmth at being the center of attention on a cold Christmas Day in the McDonald’s on Canal Street.return
We left to wander Chinatown. I told Rene I’d come back to check on him later in the afternoon….I figured he’d be long gone by the time I returned. I didn’t last long outside…perhaps two hours. The cold destroyed me that day….I could not get myself together. I apologized to my friend, because I just wanted to go home. My obligation to Rene and my cold fingers directed my footsteps, and I found myself back in the McDonald’s, and saw that Rene had never finished his orange juice, or his coffee, and was slumped insensible. This was odd, and after this picture, I roused him once more.
This McDonald’s and many others serve as a refuge for homeless people. The two women in the background, Jennetta and Christine, explained to me. They suggested that I help Rene to the shelter located on Lafayette Street. I hadn’t intended on doing anything of the kind until they made the suggestion, I admit. They were right, and I realized that it was Christmas and in no way appropriate to leave him in this condition. I guess I would’ve sat with him for an hour or two….but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take him to shelter. And I’m sorry to say that I should have figured that out on my own, and didn’t. Thanks to Jennetta and Christine, Rene did get help.
With my friend’s assistance, Rene made it out of the McDonald’s. It became clear immediately that he never was drunk, or fatigued, or just another shapeless homeless guy that we all skirt past every day in New York and Los Angeles and everywhere else. He told us, in strangely slurred speech, that he had an apartment. He was, however, entirely unable to control his movements, and lacked even enough basic balancing skill to remain upright without falling over. He dropped his orange juice on Canal Street, and, along with the juice, exploded in frustration and dismay when he did so. He nearly fell on his head and I knew that he may have had a stroke and been unable to communicate his condition, and that he had taken refuge in the McDonald’s because he was unable to help himself or speak sequentially long enough to interest someone in order to get help. And….all those assumptions that we all make, every day. Assumptions about each other that can blind us to the most obvious situations. Put Rene in a small town coffee shop on Christmas Day and I believe he would’ve been hospitalized far sooner. So many people saw Rene, including me, and concluded that he was a homeless person and therefore beyond reach or sympathy. So he had sat in the McDonald’s for many many hours, until management kicked us all out and I realized that it was time to call 911.
Once EMS arrived, we were able to coax him into allowing himself the luxury of being cared for. The EMT’s were two strong and comforting men, and we let him go. I took a few pictures….but I’m not sure if I’ll use them in this entry. There is one I’ll consider. I don’t generally take pictures of people who are injured on the street or involved in any way with EMS. It’s unfair to do so in my opinion….
I haven’t seen Rene since Christmas Day. I’ve checked the McDonald’s twice….I’m nearby as I write this, and I’m thinking that today, January 9, 2018 at 11:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time that I’ll go back and check that McDonald’s, just to see. I told him I would. I hope I see him again.
I’ll keep checking until enough time passes and I give up….but every time I pass the place, as long as I’m in New York City, I’ll peek inside, just in case.