Monday, April 11, 2011
The Ballad of Eye Patch Man and Mr. Please Help Me Out.
I grew up on Long Island, NY. We lived in a town called East Islip, right slap dab in the middle of the fish shaped body of land. My father worked in Manhattan and commuted about an hour and a half each way into the city, five days a week. The Long Island railroad lets you off in midtown Manhattan in the basement of Madison Square Garden in a place called Pennsylvania Station.
When I was a kid, New York City was still a dangerous place. Mayor Giuliani wasn’t even a concept yet. Crime and poverty, which are basically the same thing, were commonplace. I remember that there were literally rules one would have to follow to divert crime and the homeless. Back then Penn Station was a breeding ground zero and home for the homeless. Cops weren’t cleaning up the mess because they were too busy being dirty.
My father and his co-workers had these rules to, “not get stabbed.” Guns were expensive and harder to come by. So if you were going to get mugged, someone wouldn’t be throwing a coffee cup at you, they’d pull out a steak knife.
The rules went as follows:
1) No eye contact in Penn Station
2) Wear a trench coat over your work clothes.
3) Don’t carry a briefcase if you’re alone, or it’s past 7PM
4) Ignore everyone
5) Carry mace
These rules were important and if not followed meant certain things may take place. Growing up, the city seemed to be a scary place, not just because it was so dense, but also because a lot of people were murdered.
My first time in Penn Station I was probably eight or nine and my father ran with me upstairs to MSG with his hands covering my eyes. I remember it smelling like despair, a bathroom, my dad’s workout clothes, pizza, doughnuts, and beer all at the same time. Rather than be adverse to it I became secretly addicted. That was real life happening. I’ve been through that station probably 5,000 times since, maybe more, in my teens to go to concerts, in my early twenties to perform comedy, and in my late twenties when I lived in the city. You don’t really understand homeless people till you live in close proximity to some. It goes beyond just not having a home, because they’re people too, with identities. To quote The Muppets Take Manhattan, “People’s are People’s.”
I lived in Park Slope Brooklyn from in my mid to late twenties. My apartment was close to what was once considered the most dangerous avenue in the state of New York, Flatbush Avenue. Brooklyn’s gentrified now. There’s much less crime, more lesbians, and groups of white boys that have the word, “the” in the name of their band. Most of them don’t even play an instrument. It’s a safer avenue now. My subway stop was right there on Flatbush. The blessed Q train. The homeless men that congregated on the steps of that platform were awesome. They were there every morning and every night. There was a duo of men that stood together rain or shine. We never really got their names. That would break the fourth wall or take away from the angelic inspiration of the quick words of wisdom they so regularly offered. They were more potent being partially anonymous. We called them “Eye patch man,” and “Mr. Please help me out.” Every day when I passed them they would greet me with smiles on their faces and say the same things. Eye patch man would say, “Love is love baby,” and Mr. Please help me out would say, “Please help me out.” He said it in a way that was almost like he was singing it, but he wasn’t. It always made my friends and me smile and we always helped them out. At Christmas they would wear Santa hats and sing carols. In the summer they would ask us to meet them in the park for a BBQ. If one of them was not there everyone in the neighborhood would express concern. They slept in random places, made enough money to eat, but still were homeless. They had a message though, many in fact, all revolving around one key phrase uttered 700 times a day as many went to and from work, “love is love.”
Those two men saw me grow up over 7-years. They saw me with long hair, short hair, with different girlfriends, sad, happy, dressed to impress, and dirty after a 18 hour day of work. They kept an eye on me; literally, eye patch man really just had one eye.
The reason I tell all of this is this, those men were my NY street angels. I knew their stories and they knew mine. If someone else asked me for change I would just nod and say, “Sorry I got my guys.” I live in LA now and still when someone asks me for change that’s what I say. Once when I said no to a guy he looked at me dead in the face and called me a faggot. I simply replied, “I didn’t know being broke made me gay.” He shook his crazy head and walked on by. He didn’t have story for me or at least one he wanted to tell me. Homeless people have stories and every city’s homeless are different. In NY most are just down on their luck. Most are veterans or victims of the crack epidemic. They just couldn’t get themselves back to civilization or out of the prison system. I once saw a woman in broad daylight just drop her pants and enjoy a nice bathroom moment. In New York the homeless are just more deliberate. In LA they are just lazy and crazy. They figure if they gotta do it somewhere they might as well have a decent view. I was just in Seattle and those homeless people are dark souls. Each one is a Nine-Inch Nail's song waiting to happen. They live in the shadows and scurry around from shadow to shadow waiting to strike like a vampire.
I feel sorrow for those who don’t have a roof over their head. It gets cold outside and a bed is a great thing to have. My two guys may not have had those two things but they had love, love for each other, love for the street, and love for love. I miss them. I hope they’re ok. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Some people see the bright side of things and some people are the bright side.