Home Sweet Homeless by Heather Kristin
Times Square was like the cleaned-up version of myself
I remember when my twin Heidi and I were ten years old, and we were living with Mother at the run-down Times Square Hotel. The year was 1984 and we had dinner the night before at the soup kitchen on Forty-Sixth Street. My family was excited to call the warm hotel room our home for a couple days. It was one room with a queen sized bed, paid for by New York State’s emergency fund.
It wasn’t really a surprise that my family got evicted from 1073 First Avenue. Mother had not paid the rent for about a year, and spent hours at housing court filing complaints about the tenement’s violations. When the landlord turned the heat and hot water back on and exterminated the mice, he got a court order for the back rent. As an unemployed nurse who couldn’t hold down a job, our single mother had no money, and no savings. We were kicked out. Simple as that. But the truth was, Mother had an awful temper, went off her rocker now and then, and had a bad habit of scratching her face until there were huge bloody holes. I’d tell my fraternal twin Heidi that Mother had “issues” with control, hence why we were dragged out of first grade to be taught at home, weren’t allowed to call our uncle or grandparents in the Midwest, and basically lived in a bubble in New York City. But Heidi would defend Mother’s behavior and quote the Bible; Honor thy father and thy mother.
To pass the time I’d stare out the window, and count the trucks pulling into the New York Times building on the narrow street below. I’d imagine how at dawn, stories from all over the globe would be delivered to homes with fireplaces and apartments with terraces. We were not allowed to read secular newspapers. Instead we read the Bible, filled up Mennonite home-schooling workbooks, and skimmed Bob Jones University etiquette and abstinence manuals.
My neck itched from the striped purple sweater from the Lambs Nazarene Church hand-out. In the reflection of the window, the patchwork of rainbow colors on the sleeves and buttons made me look like TV’s Punky Brewster. It was officially my favorite piece of clothing besides my red Annie dress that Mother had sewn for me.
Slowly I pulled away from the retro curtain and laid on my third of the bed next to everything I had in the world. The rest of my stuff; a Norma Kamali sweatshirt circle skirt, Fiorucci T-shirt, Bloomies underwear, neon tube socks, fake furry animals, photos, and my diary were tucked neatly into a backpack. I pulled out the fragile photographic negatives and placed Heidi’s over mine. I tried to imagine our father’s face, whom we had never met, by merging the images. Mother told us that he was an orphan who died in Denmark. It seemed made up.
Heidi moved her flashlight underneath the thin sheets and I heard her book slam shut. I peeked inside but she gripped the blanket and said until this hobo phase was over, she was on a camping trip.
"Come on. Open up!" Mother said in a sing song-y voice while pounding on the door. She had returned early from the welfare office. A rat ran under the bed. Heidi's forehead of curls came out of the blanket.
"What was that noise?"
"It's Mom. I'm letting her in," I said.
"No, that 'ti, ti, ti, ti' noise."
"A rat. Under the bed."
I tip-toed across the room, took a few steps out of my way to squish a water-bug, and unlocked the door. Mother drew me into her arms. I tightened my shoulders. A wisp of her platinum blond hair fell down from her bun, tickled my nose. Then I watched her hoist Heidi into her arms.
Mother reached into her chic Le Sport backpack and pulled out the roll of toilet paper I had stolen from Turtle Bay Music School. She turned, opened the door and walked to the bathroom down the hall. Heidi and I were lucky to have need-based scholarships for once a week, one hour music lessons, plus their toilet paper was the softest and easiest to steal. When my tummy grumbled before my lesson I'd tear off a piece of toilet paper and pop it into my mouth like chewing gum. My violin teacher never found out that I was hungry or homeless.
When Mother returned from the hotel bathroom, she asked, "Wanna get a hot dog at Nathan's on Broadway?"
I grabbed my violin just in case I had to play for my supper or Mother forgot to bring enough cash. I was used to busking next to the break dancers on Fifth Avenue but had never street performed on Broadway.
On our walk to Nathan's Famous Restaurant we saw squeegee men, hustlers, drag queens and a hooker dressed in skin tight denim leaning on a wall with graffiti. Storefronts had photos of topless women with tiny stars covering their tits, wearing leopard print thongs and pink fluffy handcuffs. Sailors piled out of a strobe lit doorway. A sidewalk preacher with a giant sign that read The End is Near gave them the eye.
A few blocks later we entered the cavernous, yellow and green striped restaurant. By the counter, the workers had on funny hats and were handing out buttons and balloons. I grabbed a yellow balloon and Mother bought three hot dogs. Within minutes we devoured them, ready for our next adventure. Heidi and I skipped out of the hot dog place and Mother followed.
"Come on! Let's go sneak into some fancy hotel and ride the elevators!" I said, wanting a different life.
Mother reached for my hand, still holding my violin and gave me a strong tug. I tightened and lifted my shoulders. She said we had to behave because we might bump into a movie producer. Then we could live in a penthouse apartment. Instead a crazed man came into our path with skin that was bubbling underneath like gasoline ready to explode. He pulled a shiny silver object from his jacket. People screamed. I’d had enough. I let go of my mother, ran back inside down the broken escalator into Nathan's, and hid underneath a table. It smelled like pee. I pinched my nose closed with my fingers. Mother and sister ran inside, too, but stopped on the first floor. They froze in each others arms, screaming. My heart pounded fast and hard.
I snuck back up and watched the man wave a knife a few feet away from my mother. He threatened to stab anyone in reach. I slipped back down the escalator. With each taunt of his knife, I thought, Mother’s going to die and I’m going to an orphanage.
I freaked out, imagining my family being cut into little pieces, and ran back up the escalator. Suddenly a large man jumped on the crazed man's back. Cop cars pulled up, their strobe lights flashing red, white, and blue. It was over. I ran to my mother. Then we went to my sister, now huddled in a corner. We hugged and watched them drag the crazed man away.
A man dressed in a space-aged paper fabric jacket came over to me and asked if I was okay. “I’m great,” I said. I told him I was lucky to have my mother and sister and my violin. My mother reached down and gave me a hug. She smelled like Jean Nate, Oil of Olay, and our god-mother’s afghan. It reminded me of home.
“Things are going to get better,” Mother said, pulling a strand of hair out of my lip with her shaky hand. “I love you and we will always be together.”
And just like that I believed in her goodness again.
After a year of sleeping in shelters, subway cars, and stranger’s apartments, the Housing Urban Development found us a rent stabilized railroad flat in Hell’s Kitchen. Mother went on welfare. Fearful of losing our mother and of how others might look down on us, Heidi and I pretended not to notice her changing moods and rages, as they continued into our teen years. At our music school Heidi and I created a newsletter, to meet kids our age since we were not attending school. I continued to wear the mask that made me seem just like everyone else, and the years passed.
In my early twenties I moved to the YMCA, attended Circle in the Square Theatre School, and odd-jobbed as a waitress, a caterer, Park Avenue nanny, a stand-in on Sex and the City, and a violin teacher. Our mother moved to her hometown in Ohio to raise llamas. Heidi married a Republican lawyer and moved to a small town. I remember asking my sister how she felt about our childhood. She replied that she didn’t want to live in the past. Then I called Mother to see how she viewed it. She had a selective memory and wanted validation for raising us, not my judgment. I didn’t want to hurt her by raising old grievances. I was scared to confront her, to ruin our relationship, so I let her memories live. But mine lived too.
Even though we had moved away and were grown-up, I laid awake at night re-telling my stories and filling up my diary. I wanted to reveal the years of trying to understand, the years of nothing and nobody else, the years of trying to come home, and the years of trying to grow without a home. I realized that finding my voice was more important than wanting a star on the Hollywood Boulevard. At the age of thirty, I quit acting, and decided to put my childhood into essays, entered a couple writing competitions, and won. I went back to college to study literature.
Twenty-five years after my family’s street pilgrimage, now a writer, I walked down Broadway on a chilly fall day, staring long and hard, trying to make sense of what had happened there. The people that had helped us were gone and the buildings that were once filled with crack dealers had been replaced with Disney’s Lion King, attracting kids to matinees. Tourists, baby carriages, and rickshaw drivers zoomed by me, and there was no trace of the mayhem that had filled the neighborhood. Suddenly I felt no connection to the past, like my home had been erased by gentrification. Times Square was like the cleaned-up version of myself. Yet hidden in the streets and in my breath, it still held its secrets, shame, and stories.