Listening to Robinson
Tyrone Robinson is a sturdy looking man almost six feet tall with a very dark complexion. He is 46 years old and maybe a bit chubby. It is hard to say, though, whether it is his body that makes his clothes bulge or all the stuff he carries in his pockets. Dark-blue and black seem to be his favorite colors, although maybe the dark-blue coat, the dark-blue pants, the dark-blue hoody and the black wool cap just happened to be the clothes charity had for him. Robinson wears big glasses strapped to his head with an elastic belt. The bulky brown frame obscures his features.
The Holy Name Center runs a one-woman case management program and offers showers to homeless people. On four weekdays from nine to two, Christy Robb, Holy Name’s caseworker helps people like Robinson navigate through the convoluted requirements of the welfare system. On weekdays, between six and nine in the morning, Robinson takes a shower, picks up his mail and sometimes walks up and down the badly lit chapel. At other times he rests on the chapel’s wooden pews or looks through its stained glass windows out onto the street.
Today the chapel effuses the biting smell of ammonia and Robinson crams himself into a corner of the small dark waiting room. Four chairs and a little table leave only a narrow aisle in the middle. Robinson seems far too big for such a tiny room but doesn’t seem to mind. He politely urges me to take a seat. His name is second on the waiting list, but he lets the other men go ahead. Robinson has time to spare. He doesn’t have a job or a place to live.
When I enter the waiting room the men there urge me to put my name on the list. But as Robinson explains, “She doesn’t need Christy to help her.” Still, one of the men is afraid to lose his spot in line. The man’s light, feathery hair seems like it has just been shampooed and blow-dried; he looks clean and well groomed. Despite his spotless appearance he insists that he desperately needs a shower. But shower-time at the Holy Name Center is between 6 and 9 in the morning and it is now 10:30. The man repeatedly whines: “I’m starting to get very frustrated. This is just really frustrating.” His hands are jittery. I ask him if I can help and he shows me a form listing the addresses of different charities in New York that might offer showers. I give him my cell phone to place some calls but he doesn’t know how to use it. He wants me to dial. We call the numbers without much success; all we get is more numbers to call, numbers of places that might offer showers. I alternate between dialing and jotting down numbers for the man who smells like soap. I listen to him plead: “No wait, please don’t hang up on me. I’m getting really frustrated; I already called that number. They don’t have showers. And I really need to take a shower.”
Christy, the caseworker reappears just in time. “You’ve got to stop talking so much,” she says to the man with the feathery hair as she thrusts him into her office. Robinson, who has been quietly standing in his little corner observing the situation, concludes with much world-weariness, “News don’t travel too well. A lot of stuff on these lists is outdated.”
Robinson’s booming voice fills up the dim little room, reaching out into the hallway and chapel, blending with the pungent smell of detergent. “Whatever you need, Christy will try to help,” he concludes, “and she is pretty good for talking. When I talk usually no one listens to me.” And then Robinson starts talking.
This winter he spends the cold nights at a shelter downtown. “But the only thing you can get from the Bowery mission is misery,” he chortles. When the weather is over 40 degrees the mission closes, and Robinson sleeps on a park bench or in front of a vacant building. He complains about the “lunatics” at the mission. All the junk they talk about, their babbling about nothing while he tries to read.
Suddenly Robinson remembers the rumor that one of the guys at the mission has died. He wonders who the guy might be. He lists several men who seemed to have been in poor condition. Maybe the guy who had diarrhea the same night he did? Robinson hasn’t seen him for a while. “It certainly was a very violent case of diarrhea,” he chuckles. “I almost thought I’d die.” Robinson never looks up while he talks, and I wonder whether he’ll ever take a breath.
A small, gray-haired Ecuadorian who sits on one of the chairs carefully balancing a cane suddenly interrupts Robinson. Like a dog afraid of his master’s raised hand, Robinson twitches and immediately vanishes into the chapel. The Ecuadorian tries to continue where my last question had left off. What do the men and women who come to Holy Name need help with? The Ecuadorian needs to get the plumbing in his apartment fixed. The caseworker will call his super and the housing authority and then Beth Israel to track down his medical records. The Ecuadorian now thinks that it is time to ask me some questions. He wants to know whether I am married and why I don’t have any children. I try to explain, but my answers don’t please him. “If I was your husband,” he admonishes, “I’d lock you up at home and make you some babies, because a woman without babies is nothing.” I am a little taken aback by this little man’s chauvinism. I diplomatically disagree, so he compromises. “A man who hasn’t made any babies is nothing either.” He then asks me if I could write a book about his life.
I decide to follow Robinson into the chapel to talk some more about his reading. He tells me he loves science fiction. And yes, he has read Robert S. Heinlein. He starts to list the titles of Heinlein’s novels. “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, The Man Who Sold the Moon, Time Enough for Love,” Robinson pauses. We both take a deep breath, then he continues. Since his edition of Time Enough for Love looked like a romance novel, the kids in high school made fun of him. He got embarrassed and stopped reading it.
Robinson isn’t a man of lucid transitions or sudden stops. He is very educated, but a bit of a procrastinator. And he rarely starts a story at its beginning. He gets caught up in every little detail; and he remembers lots of little details. He now tells me about his criminal case and how the caseworker at Holy Name helped him out of his mess. One day he found an ID and a credit card on the street. “I bent down behind a parked car, and there it was, a little brown wallet…” He wanted to give it back to the owner, but got distracted. Robinson recounts the complete address on the ID, including the zip code. He wonders out loud where the street might have been and excuses himself, “I’d never heard of this street and didn’t have a map with me. Besides, I didn’t have a subway card to get there.” A few days later the police saw Robinson peeing on the street. They searched him, found the cards and charged him with larceny.
After hours of waiting at Holy Name, it is Robinson’s turn to receive help. “Tyrone, sweetie, what is it that you want?” The caseworker asks, her head peeking out of her office. Robinson pulls a large green plastic bag filled with stuff out of one of his pants pockets. As he ruffles through the bag, he tells the woman about a man on the street who had offered him housing over a year ago. He remembers the address of the house where the outreach counselor had noticed him sitting on the stoop drinking beer. Sorting through a stack of business cards, he describes the color and the brick pattern of the façade. “I didn’t find him, he found me,” he says. He hands the caseworker a dirty, worn-out piece of paper – the business card of a counselor at Common Ground, a non-profit housing organization.
Robinson started the application process with Common Ground over a year ago but then decided to skip the required chest X-rays. “I don’t know why. I just didn’t want to go back then,” he says. Christy, the caseworker, calls Common Ground and finds out that Robinson is still in their system. He can go back and reapply. He has to go through a number of evaluations, psychological and physical exams and interviews.
The next time I see Robinson I ask whether he reapplied for housing at Common Ground. He admits, squirming, that he hasn’t gotten around to it. “I can’t go in these clothes,” he says. “I first need new pants.” I drop the subject. Christy eventually gets Robinson a pair of brand-new (dark-blue) pants. “Sweetie, you need some new underwear as well?” She asks.
A latchkey child, Robinson grew up in a basement in the Bronx. His father, the building’s super, let his mother do all the work while he stayed out drinking. His mother later married another man, to whom Robinson owes his name. About his family Robinson says, “they seem to die off regularly.” He goes through all his aunts and uncles, interjecting that one of his favorite uncles introduced him to Chinese food. After school his uncle would sometimes pick him up and treat him for lunch. Robinson lists all the diseases his relatives had. Once he finishes with the diseases he starts listing his aunts’ and uncles’ professions. After that he rambles on for a while until he comes to the conclusion that there is no one left, or at least no one he knows of.
In the 1980s Robinson worked as a computer programmer for the NYPD. This is the only job he ever mentions and I don’t dare ask him why it ended. I don’t want to hear what he refuses to address. I only want to know what he wants to tell me. And there is plenty.
He tells me that today he receives public assistance. He gets $150 in food stamps, $137 in cash and a monthly restaurant allowance of $65 to buy warm food. “With food stamps,” he explains to me, “you can’t get anything cooked. You can buy seeds. But by the time you can grow food from seeds you’ll be dead.” Robinson pulls a letter out of one of his many pockets to show me something. I’m not sure what exactly, because his mind trails off to the past when he was able to cook for himself. “I would buy the cheapest chicken in the store, put hot sauce and pepper on it and put it into the microwave. If I get my own apartment that’s the first thing I’ll do. Buy a new microwave and a cheap chicken.”
I want to know what Robinson likes to eat. It seems like we share a passion for food and Robinson cheers up whenever he talks about it. He mentions a charity on the Lower East Side, that serves vegetarian Indian food and sometimes distributes clothes to homeless people. He raves about the pasta they serve on Saturdays. Suddenly a memory that makes him giggle strikes his mind. Robinson’s giggling comes from deep down in his chest. It makes his whole body tremble. He remembers how he once waited in the wrong line. He meant to get a winter coat but had mixed up the clothes line with the food line. By the time he switched lines all that was left were socks and giant pants. “Size forty pants,” he chuckles, “are for humpty dumpties.” Robinson didn’t get a winter coat that day. He left with two pairs of socks.
When I return to the Holy Name Center a few weeks later the door is locked. I bang against the door and throw stones against the windows. A homeless man who sits on the stoop tells me to bang louder. I follow his advice and finally the man who cleans the basement showers opens. Robinson is alone in the dark waiting room asleep on a chair. I wake him carefully. He seems to be in a rotten mood. “I’m doing as bad as I possibly could,” he barks. “Last night I fell asleep on a park bench. You know how silly that feels?” I don’t. “When I woke up at 3 in the morning I was all alone. There was only one woman walking a small dog.”
As Robinson digresses into a lengthy description of this woman and her dog his mood seems to lighten a bit.
I interrupt him to ask whether he already went to Common Ground to sort out his housing situation. He tells me that he went to the required physical, but still has to go to the psychiatric and psycho-social evaluations. “They ask me the same questions you do,” he says nonchalantly. That frees me to start at the beginning. “How come you are homeless?” I ask.
On a freezing day in February 2003, the Federal Marshals kicked Robinson out of his apartment. He had no money. As he was walking around aimlessly he found three dollars that he immediately spent on beer. He chuckles at the thought. Then he explains: “It is the law that the rent for public housing in New York can’t take up more than 30 percent of your income. So that’s what I paid for my apartment. Exactly 30 percent of my income.” But Chelsea Housing charged him far more than that. Robinson went to court and lost. I don’t exactly understand all the specifics of the lawsuit. I understand that Robinson represented himself and hear fragments like “as decided in Beckman v. New York City Housing Authority” and “it was a bad judge.” I interrupt him as he lists all of New York City’s districts, delineating the course of their borders. I ask him where he does all his research. “In the library and in Barnes & Noble,” he says, his voice suggesting that this question wasn’t worth the interruption. He now lists the location of all the libraries in the city and describes their interiors. I am entirely absorbed by his speed and the abundance of information he unleashes. I have long lost track of his transitions. I hear him mention Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis and that he walks to his welfare appointments to save his fare cards for more “important” things. I want to ask what “things” exactly, but Robinson is now in the middle of explaining how the welfare system works. “That moron Pataki,” he says, “has changed the name to ‘Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.’”
I don’t remember how Robinson and I got from “the moron Pataki” to Camp LaGuardia, the homeless shelter in Upstate New York where he spent several months in the winter of 2003 or 2004. According to Robinson, Camp LaGuardia is a facility for 1,001 men. “Exactly 1,001,” he points out. Robinson caught tuberculosis while he was there. “They didn’t tell us that there was an epidemic,” he says.
Robinson tells me that Camp LaGuardia allows the homeless men to keep cats. He had a cat he named “The Boss.” I smile at the funny name coming from someone without a job. I see Robinson frowning and pursing his lips into a snout. “That’s what ‘The Boss’ looked like,” he says. He tells me that some of the other men kept skunks as pets. “It is prejudicious to say that skunks stink,” he adds. I make a note to look up prejudicious. To my surprise, I find that it is correct.
Robinson hated Camp LaGuardia. The shelter is in the middle of nowhere. There are no stores, no communities and no public transportation nearby. When I ask Robinson why he was sent there, he mumbles that it’s “a neurological problem.” At Camp LaGuardia they offered vocational training, but Robinson didn’t attend. He spent his days in the sparse library. “They had a big map of Antarctica mounted on the door,” he says. “Camp Vostok, a Russian science base, is the coldest place in the world. They found fresh water lakes deep under the ice. One mile under the ice. There is nothing else down there.” Within seconds Robinson and I travel from Camp LaGuardia to Antarctica and from there to the Falkland Islands, the only connection being the cold and a scarcity of population. “On the Falkland Islands,” Robinson continues, “they have 600,000 sheep. And they have 1,800 residents at Port Stanley.”
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.