Life and death in the streets

There is a couple that I met, while working in the needle exchange, that I can’t get out of my mind. You might say that I am haunted by ghosts of the past. They were in their early sixties, homeless, and they had come up during the warmer weather. They liked Massachusetts best but they wintered in Florida.

Snowbirds. That’s the expression people have for those who have a condo in Florida and then another condo in the Northeast. Unfortunately, this couple had no condo in either place, but they traveled and camped. They didn’t have children, so when they stayed at a shelter, they couldn’t sleep together.

Love can be tough, sometimes, for people who have money and a nice place to live. Try to imagine, if you can, love thriving in poverty, living only in the heart and spirit, but having no roof to keep out the rain or the snow.

But their love survived.

Life on the streets. It can be tough for anyone, but for a woman, it can be downright dangerous. A fairly decent-looking woman can always find a place to sleep – for a price. That price may be higher than she thinks, but she’ll pay it anyway.

In my early recovery, I shared an apartment with two other folks, a man and a woman. It was unique for me to have my own bedroom, and the thought of becoming homeless again scared me. I’m older now, 65 years old, and I don’t have the energy it takes to haul myself from one end of town to another, carrying all my belongings.

I have never forgotten what it was like. I remember meeting a young woman on the streets, all tattooed and rings n’ things while I was working as the Editor for street paper Spare Change News. She was only 14 years old, and had been on the streets for about six months. To protect her identity, I’ll call her Radio.

It was getting cold, and she and I were chatting in the Pit at Harvard Square, when she mentioned that she and her girlfriend needed a place to stay that night and they hoped it would be a safe place.

I figured I’d help out for a change and let them sleep in my room, and I’d sleep on the couch in the living room. They were thrilled.

Now let me say that I had known Radio for a few months and we had talked quite often. I knew that things had happened in her life that had totally traumatized her.

There’s always what they call a “tell”. Her tell was one of the tattoos she had. It was on the back of her neck: a tattoo of the words “Dead Girl” in all caps. When someone gets a tattoo like that, it definitely signifies something. I remember when I was in my early teens and suicide wasn’t far from my mind.

So they came to the apartment that I shared with the two other people. I showed them my bedroom and told them that they would share the bed and I would sleep on the couch in the living room right in the next room.

They kind of freaked a little because they expected to have to pay a price. Usually when a guy brings a girl home from the streets there’s a sexual “favor” involved. It’s never nice when you have to have sex with someone you would never have sex with if you weren’t forced to by circumstances.

Women on the street pay that price all the time. Radio and her friend kept me company in the kitchen while I cooked us all supper and then we chatted for a while. Then I said that I was going to bed and they looked at each other.

“No, no, I meant what I said. You get the bedroom; I get the couch.”

They couldn’t believe it at first; thought I was putting them on. Then they realized I was straight up with them. They used the bathroom to clean up. A hot shower in a clean tub is a real luxury when you’re living on the street. After they bathed, they went into my room and shut the door.

I lay down on the couch and had a great night’s sleep.

You see, the part of the story you don’t know is that I have a daughter and a son and I had no idea where they were. I looked at Radio and her friend the same way I would look at my own kids. If they were homeless, I would hope someone would take them in and not ask anything of them.

It was 1995 and I had no idea that in 2007 my daughter, Jasmine, was going to contact me by email and chat with me for a while to see if I was safe. Now I have my daughter, my grand daughter, and a son-in-law in my life and it is very precious. My son is not in my life yet but he knows I’m there and I hope one day he will come around. I always keep in mind that I did the damage by disappearing from their lives, first as a fugitive, and then by serving my sentence for drug crimes. I finally kicked and rebuilt my life.

But let’s get back to Radio. Over the years she and I built a friendship that was very precious to me. It was all because I did the right thing way back in 1995 and treated the two girls like daughters instead of street trash.

Folks, there is no street trash. There are only people who treat street people like trash – and the people who mistreat homeless people are the trash. Am I being hard on them? Maybe they just don’t know any better.

Over the years, Radio and I became very close. When I met a woman, Mary Esther, who was close to my age, we fell in love and got married. Radio used to come over the house on holidays and have dinner with us. My wife and I have a policy of having people we know over for holidays if they don’t have family and just need a place to be safe for celebration.

God has been very good to me and I have much more in my life than I thought I deserved. My wife tells me I deserve it and I have to believe her.

But let’s get back to Radio. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the damage done was too great. I don’t know what happened all those other nights she was on the street, and back then I wasn’t in the position to take her in.

Radio was found dead one night in a small apartment she had rented after going through a program. It appeared to be suicide. I’ll never forget her. She was a talented artist and had a beautiful website on the internet. I don’t know what happened to her art. I tried to save it but the computer I was using crashed and I lost it all.

But I didn’t lose as much as Radio, a woman who lived on the streets.

Marc D. Goldfinger is a formerly homeless vendor who is now housed. He can be reached at junkietroll@yahoo.com Marc also has books on www.smashwords.net that can be downloaded for $2.99.

Marc D. Goldfinger is a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Spare Change news. Formerly homeless, he serves as the paper's poetry editor.

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