The day Gothamist published my piece "NYC Panhandlers Open Up About Drugs, Dangers, & These Summertime Oogles," I received an email with the subject line "your recent Gothamist article features my likeness."
The email's author—let's call her Lauren—asked us to remove the above photo from the article, taken by Benjamin Curry in June 2012. You can't make out Lauren's face, but you can see that of her companion quite clearly.
The guy in the photo and I are still married, fully off the streets, and gainfully employed full time at very mundane office jobs (the antithesis of crusty, in fact). I would really like to see a different photo of someone or something else in place of ours, as we are finally achieving a degree of success in our lives, none of which is helped by a photo which can be traced back to me… Pretty please?
While being asked “pretty please” did tug at me (I'm from Minnesota and say things like "Aw, geez" more often than is wise), Curry's image was a powerful way to illustrate the story, and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public.
That said, I was intrigued by Lauren and her husband, and I wondered about the path they'd thwacked from apparent destitution to mainstream viability. In the following days, Lauren agreed to be interviewed, so long as she remained anonymous.
Lauren, who's in her mid-20s and now lives in her native Texas (but not in her hometown) with her Brooklyn-born husband, spoke with me on the phone for 45 minutes right after she finished streaming Apple's latest iPhone announcement—she sells phones and needs to stay current so she can better help customers.
Why do you want to remain anonymous? Initially when I saw my photo [on Curry's Flickr page], I realized it could be linked back to me. I've taken great strides in my own life to portray...It's not that I'm ashamed of my history, but I do...it's not distancing myself from it, but I have a more professional life now, and I'm basically trying to move above and beyond that and be my own model of success. So with the path I intend to take and the way the Internet and everything works now, it's really easy to do a quick Google search. I'd just prefer that not come up in the future unless I'm comfortable talking about it.
Is there a certain stigma you feel in having been homeless? You know, it's a stigma that surrounds the word "homeless," the idea of homelessness and the types of people who end up being homeless. I would rather someone get to know me as a person before making that judgment.
What preconceptions does the public have about homeless people? One thing I've noticed on numerous occasions, how people are so quick to say, "Wow, you're so smart; aren't you in college? Didn't you go to school?" They think that only dumb drug-users or idiots end up in situations like that. They just can't believe that someone who can hold a conversation would also be down in that condition.
Why did you move to New York? I originally moved to New York City to chase that big city dream. I had grown up in a small town my whole life and I really wanted to see what was out there. I was in a roommate situation that went belly up. At the time I had made some friends who were squatters, street punks, like dirty kids they call "crusties."
I was faced with the choice of going back to my hometown where my mom was struggling to take care of herself and take care of her mother. They didn't really have room for their adult daughter to give everything away, give up, and move back home. I'm not exactly super tight with my mother. We're okay now. I didn't have any resources on [the East Coast], I didn't have any money or anyway to get home...I was left with no other option at that point.
What did you do for work when you had an apartment? I worked at Petland Discounts where I was third key. I was really on my way up. I got promoted over some of my coworkers because I was doing a good job, I guess.
Did you keep your job while homeless? I made it about two days sleeping in Manhattan stairwells before I realized that this really wasn't going to work. I now have a lot more logical head on my shoulders than I did then, where I could have gotten another job and really held it down. I worked at the pet store a couple weeks after becoming homeless before I left the city entirely. I feel like it's a lot easier to get on your feet elsewhere than it is to do so in New York without any support.
Why's that? It's hard enough for the average guy to get along—I've heard people describe New York as a playground for the rich—let alone someone who's reduced to a backpack, trying to hold down a job and everything else. I mean have you taken a look lately at rents and what you get for what you work for? I wasn't familiar with the shelter system in New York or the resources for people. I came back so I could make a go of it again; I didn't really get very far.
Did you go back home? No. As per the article, I was one of those "traveler kids." I hopped freight when I left town. After I left New York, I did a couple tours coast-to-coast and back: San Francisco then back to New York.
How does your husband factor into this timeline? He was on his own, "living out," for eight, or nine years. He took me in. We started out just dating, real informal. Over the course of traveling together, our relationship strengthened. All told, we traveled four years. We actually came back to New York City and got married at the marriage bureau.
Where did you meet? We met when I was still gainfully employed and I was walking down the street in the Lower East Side. It was a chance occurrence, the kind of stuff you hear about in fairy tales, where you meet someone and that someone changes your life. He asked for a cigarette, we chitchatted a little bit. Later we met for coffee and the rest is history. A lot of couples on the road get a good three months before it completely implodes. We're really beating the odds in that regard.
What about crust punks or traveling kids did you find interesting? I think you hear this one a lot, but it’s really just the whole ethos of "I'm going to go do what I want and I really don't care who the fuck says what."
I came from this small town where I lived my whole life, and then suddenly I'm talking to people who just cruised in from the Northeast or other places I'd never been to. Of course there is the whole element of drinking and partying, which is pretty fun—at the time.
I will say this: I never got into any drugs. In your original article, a young lady stated—I really do want to broach this—that if you couldn't make it through a winter on the New York streets, then you weren't really anything. I take the opposite view: If you don't have a drug habit, you can leave. I wouldn't want to be anywhere where there is a blizzard and a hurricane. I don't see it as a mark of pride, like, I was crazy enough to post up huddling in an abandoned building throughout a New York winter.
You're saying people stay because their dealer is here? Or, if you're on methadone, where are you going to find your clinic [on the road]?
Did you know Mary McSweeney, the woman we're talking about? Mary and I know each other on a first-name basis. I'd seen your Word on the Street New York years ago, and I read those pieces with Mary where she's talking about her relationship with Mark and how it developed. I was really happy to read the update where Mary is living in housing, because the summer before this one, Mary was kind of in a bad state and it was sad to see the young woman that she was when she was fresh on the streets and came to New York versus...It was crazy.
Mary is doing great. After four years of traveling, you and your husband came back to New York. Was it for the sole intention of getting married? My husband is from Brooklyn. Originally, our first attempt to get off the streets with any seriousness was in 2012 when we had gotten married. We were really taking the steps to build our lives together, so we tied the knot and set about trying to navigate the [shelter system] gauntlet.
Is it tough for a couple to stick together in the system? I guess they have some couples housing. We have a dog, and [giving it away so we could get into a shelter] was non-negotiable. Trying to sublet a place when you're a homeless married couple...the odds are really stacked against you [in New York]. Where we are now [in Texas], it only took a paycheck and a half to get a place. Work was easy to find, and it's cheaper to live here.
Was it tough to get a job while homeless? I made friends with some people who were pretty open-minded. I washed my hair and kept it in tight braids. I kept my work clothes separate. [Coworkers] would drive me home, and I would tell them to drop me off at these woods, because we were camping at the time. I would get to work really early, change in the bathroom, and nobody ever knew.
What references did you have to show your landlord to get your place? We're living in a part of town that doesn’t have the best reputation. We joke that the background check was probably no more than a Google search, like, does your name come up in any major headlines? No? You're in. There were five or six other apartments I would rather live in than the one I'm in, but it was the only place that would take our dog. Our dog is a part of our family, and he's been with us throughout the entire thing.
You said your husband doesn't want to take part in this story. Why not? He, one, wanted compensation; and two, he dismissed the first article because of the tone. To be fair, he didn't read it all the way through.
Do you like your job selling phones? I do. I feel like getting to know people from all across the country and even panhandling has made me pretty good at sales. I'm good at establishing rapport with people.
What do you think about Apple's latest announcement? I was pretty underwhelmed. I mean, they just reinvented some stuff that already exists. I have an Android.
What did being homeless teach you about the rest of the world? Before, I think I was the type of person who, if I did see someone panhandling or sitting on the side of the road or sidewalk, asking for a cigarette, I would turn my eyes and pretend they didn't exist. Then being on the other side of that was really eye-opening for me. I think I gained a greater sense of humility and compassion, having to be on the receiving end of both the good and the bad.
This interview has been edited and condensed.