Out of all the things I experienced in New York it was time spent with a lady called Audrey that left the biggest impact. She’s a true New Yorker who I bumped into and chatted for ages about everything from the difference of Android, Windows and iOS, to her views on the various mayors of New York. She’s one of the 20,000 or so rough sleepers that we would in the UK describe as ‘fallen through the net’. Yet you quickly realise there is no net in New York to fall through. When the money dries out, you fall directly out on to the street. If there’s one lasting memory of New York, it isn’t Ground Zero, as haunting as that is, nor the towering skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, nor the pulsating lights of Time Square, but something that that is captured in this picture I took.
This chap is sandwiched between a Versace shop and a massive advert for Cartier, shaking his old coffee cup for money.
There’s people like this all over Manhattan. Go to Grand Central station, the beautiful art deco station and you’ll see many of these chaps. Rummaging through the bins whilst a few feet away New Yorkers tuck into lunch. Pop into the loos, and you’ll see them trying to get some sleep in the cubicles.
Wait a moment and you’ll see police poke them out of their slumber because it is illegal to sleep in the station. And when you watch them, you realise how lucky we are to have our police in the UK.
You see Audrey is intelligent, articulate, passionate, great fun, and streetwise. After her Uncle’s flower business collapsed, there was no net to catch her. She was cheekily sitting in a church enjoying the post-meeting coffee and biscuits. Unlike my experiences elsewhere in Manhattan, she was welcomed in the church like anyone else. She wasn’t poor old Audrey, she was Audrey. She could talk about her experiences in other churches as fruitily as she could about Obama’s policies, or people’s attitudes to homeless people like herself. She was a tough cookie. She knew how to get the most out of travel cards, where and when things happened, where to go to hear authentic ‘bang bang’ New York. She knew where not to go in New York, where even a tough cookie like herself is likely to end up with a bullet in their bodies. She even discussed setting up a business of guided tours across New York, combining what tourists want to see and what most tourists dont.
I wanted to see New York because I anticipated it being concentrated America in one city. Perhaps that is exactly what I saw in my few days there. Cartier jewellery mixing with people shaking Starbucks paper cups for a meal or booze. People stealing time from their careers to eat a Sloppy Joe’s, followed by guys rummaging through their rubbish in search of some sloppy leftovers.
I’ve seen poverty in other places of the world, but none as hopeless of what I saw in New York, sitting so transparently with those who have so much. The eyes of Cartier man, and the stories of Audrey have hit me really hard in a way that I kind of thought I would be resilient to by now. Cartier man is someone’s son. Audrey is someone’s daughter.
Going back to my rather posh art deco hotel was a shock, just like returning home from a trip to Mongolia when I cringed at all the crap I spend my life collecting and maintaining. It’s a weird moment when you consider what’s really important. It’s weird when your heart is stirred to do something that means something yet I am so aware that normal life can so easily set in and Cartier man and Audrey disappear into a memory. I hope things don’t return to normal. I hope Audrey doesnt become a memory in that way, but rather a memory that will continually stir me into doing something about the injustice of poverty.