2005_06_jasonwatts.gifThe basics:
Age, occupation, where are you from, how long have you been here?
I'm 27 years old, and right now I'm a barback/waiter at a bar in Queens. I'm from Oshkosh and Oclaire in Wisconsin. I came to New York two years ago, I've been here ever since, and I don't want to leave.

A few for you:
How'd you wind up in New York?
I found out my friend Ray went to school in New York and I was just enthralled. I said you've got take me sometime, but she didn't have the means, because she was in a dorm. I went to the Navy, which took me to Illinois and then California. I missed the snow. When Ray finally got an apartment and some money, she flew me out here one-way. It was so unreal when I finally got to be here. I never thought I'd make it here. It's a mythical city that has everything. There's parks in the middle of the city where, if you sit in the right spot, you can't even see the buildings.

Have you left NYC since getting here?
Only once, to go to New Jersey to see Lollapalooza.

How many places have you called home since coming to New York?
I don't think I have that far a memory span. I'd say it's in the fifties. But only about twelve beds.

Where's the worst place you've had to sleep?
The worst place is the train, because you can't lay down, even on the floor. When I did, I'd get a fifty-dollar ticket for taking up two seats or obstructing the pathway. You've got to pay them, because If I got 5 citations, I was going to jail. That's where most of my money went.

How did you function while sleeping on the train?
It was autopilot: you wake up, ask somebody next to you what time it is. if it's noon, you go back to sleep. I had to work at six o'clock, so I'd wake up between two and three and stay up, just walk around. If I had to use the bathroom, I would buy something at McDonald's. Barnes & Noble is free. I would wash up in the restroom, wash my feet and armpits and pretty much shower in the sink. I carried shampoo and cologne so I could wash my hair and smell good. Unfortunately my shoes were bad news, because I didn't have very many pairs of socks. Food, cigarettes, and Metrocards take up all your money.

What advice can you offer someone trying to survive on the street?
On First Avenue and 30th Street, there's an intake center that you can go. If you've got a social security number and a valid ID on you, they'll be able to hook you up with info on places to stay, homeless shelters, drop-in centers where you can eat. They'll also give you information about where you can go to get clothes. Those places helped me out a lot. I went there because I asked a police officer what I should do. he told me to go to a church. They gave me a pamphlet and directed me to the intake center. If you take the way they talk to you and don't give anything back—they'll talk to you like you're a dog, but if you accept that they're treating you this way, and try to be as respectful as possible, you'll get on their good side. They'll see that you're not a crackhead, that you don't want a place to sleep just to buy crack the next day. they want to know that you want to help yourself before they're willing to help you. They got me a whole new wardrobe which was promptly stolen because I didn't have a locker at the shelter I went to. I found in the morning that my belongings had been redistributed to the general population.

What are some of the best and worst things you've encountered while exploring the city?
I got invited up to an apartment building by three women whose steps I was sitting on, smoking. They asked me for a cigarette, and we chatted, and they invited me up to watch TV and listen to music, and they asked me what I did, expecting to hear some sort of modest, respectable occupation. When they heard I was homeless and living on the train, their dispositions totally changed. They tried to get me jobs, to get me a place to live. I've seen the goodness of New Yorkers. It's hard to come by. A lot of New Yorkers just plain old don't have time to talk to you.

The worst? I was in Bushwick, looking for my friend's new apartment. I took a wrong turn down a street and four gentlemen came up behind me and beat me very severely about the back of the head and stole my backpack. They didn't get anything but my toiletries, but still it was an in inconvenience because I had to spend what money I had on new stuff.

I've had interesting conversations with people. I'll stop and say it's a beautiful day, and someone will ask where I'm from, and I'd explain myself and they'll say that no one standing next to them at awiaiting for the light to change would ever make such a breezy comment. Everyone's all "Shit, where's my taxi?" or "Damn it, where's my train?"

What led to you hitchhiking the West Coast?
I went into the navy for ten months. Boot camp was awesome, but when I got out and was stationed on the base… I was never happy. When I was promoted to status of privileged sailor—who can leave the base—I took advantage of that opportunity. I had 700 dollars in my pocket and I knew a guy with a car. We drove to San Diego and went into the gaslight district, where all the goth kids hung out. That was my scene, the people I could identify with at the time—I was 20 then. All the rebels who hated everything… half the guys were sailors too. Anyway, I told my friend who drove me in that I'd see him again in a few months when I turned myself in, because I wasn't going back. Over the next two months I made it all the way up to San Francisco.

How does traveling the West Coast compare to wandering New York?
It was pretty much the same as New York--there were friendly people who stopped and picked me up and were very nice. There were also people who'd actually stop the car, wait for me to get close to the door, and take off at 90 miles an hour.

What's the craziest thing you've seen out on the streets or subways?
A couple having sex on the floor of the subway car. They were two homeless people, a guy and a girl, and they smelled like absolute hell.

Which are the best and worst subways to sleep on?
Most pleasant subway to ride is probably the J train, because I don't ever see anyone panhandling or yelling, and no one's ever accosted me there. The L train, out by Canarsie, is the worst. That was scary. People thought I was an Aryan just because I'm an athletic-looking white guy with a short haircut. I feared for my life because of the things people would say. I would always hide in a book, pretend I didn't hear anyone calling me a Nazi bastard. I always carried a book with me, and I could just envelop myself in what I was reading.

Any books you'd recommend for travellers?
I'd definitely recommend the Gunslinger series by Stephen King. It's a seven-book series, it's complete now. The last one finally came out in October of last year. It's about these guys who are roaming about the countryside, not knowing where they're going, what they're doing, why they're doing it, but they get signs that they're on the right path while being lost. I can totally relate to that, because that's what my life was. I was being given signs by God everywhere I went that I was on the right track, I just had to go a little further.

Best place to eat or drink in the city?
To eat, Oriole, the five-star restaurant I worked at for one day. The best bar is probably Milano's, down on Houston between Lafayette and something else. Right by the billiards. The bartenders are awesome--Nicky and Lisa and Claudine always remember what you drank and will buy you back every second round.

Best celebrity encounter on the streets of NYC?
Seeing Ric Ocasek in Virgin Records. I look to my left and all I see is this huge Adam's apple.

Any advice for Mayor Bloomberg?
Yeah, retire. We still smoke in bars, by the way.

If the world were ending tomorrow, how would you spend your last 24 hours in New York?
I would just thank God that I had such a beautiful life until then, because it was so hard but so rewarding.