I heard a story a while ago about a man from Mexico that was new to a particular city in America and was living a homeless life. After a rainstorm, another homeless man inquired as to how he’d slept the night before. Struggling with English, he said “badly” and when asked why, all he could come up with was “the button”. After a long, trying time of discerning what he was talking about, it was finally discovered that he had slept in a trash compactor, the only place he could find to get out of the rain. However, he could not sleep out of fear of someone coming along and pushing “The Button” and crushing him to death. This story is an attempt at an examination of sleep as someone homeless.
The first thing he remembered was the cold. He’d known cold before, a neighbor that left town from time to time but always came back and never let him close his leaden eyelids. This was different. It was a dry cold. Bitter. Blown down from some frozen over hell that couldn’t be stopped by cloth armor. He could feel the skin on his face tighten and his lips crack until his cheeks were red from the invisible icy slap. The air was tinted with the scent of brine and the taste of salt on asphalt heaved up from the fractured blacktop or cobblestone streets by motorists sauntering by wrapped up in their steel and glass blankets. Everything was dry and frozen. Ice and wind. Sea without the heavy stench of rotting seaweed. It was too cold for death.
The next thing he remembered was the rain. He’d felt the air warm as he’d stumbled down the hill, paved in loose stones and growing, dimming shadows. His jacket was a heavy wool, stinking of sweat and months of forgotten cigarette ash rubbed into the fabric like a gray dye memory. The rain would come soon, he knew. His life had taught him that a true blessing is a rare thing and that more frequently the pleasant was a prelude to something darker. The rain wouldn’t be as cold as the ice, but for a man without shelter, it was twice as deadly.
He’d been handed a ticket, appearing from the glare and haze of a few scavenged hours of afternoon slumber. Grime-encrusted eyes glared at the silhouette proffering the glossy strip of black and white voluntary deportation details. Then they roved wildly in fear of some company of baton-wielding soldiers of the elite scrambling out of the belly of a wooden horse. No such battalion visibly appeared, so he scratched his gritty explosion of a beard and grabbed the ticket. The shadow tried to hide the bottle of hand sanitizer, but the man could smell the sweetened sterility.
“They have great programs there. You’ll be able to eat and have a place to stay until you can get back on your feet. We’re just giving you a way to get there.”
Cold was creeping through his heavy coat, even in New York. He woke up with numbness in his fingers and struggling to swallow from the rawness in the back of his throat, cold paradoxically burning his frigid body. A few corpses of leaves clung to the imprisoned city trees, teetering there waiting for the gust that would tear them from their homes and carry them away somewhere that the wind didn’t even know. Breezes spoke of frost, a whispering oracle prophesying across his face, and the sky looked on, gray and bleak, nodding its agreement. The dew in the morning scattered across his coat in meniscus bubbles still glistened rather than sparkled, showing that the wind’s murmurings were still distant echoes, if looming ever closer.
He stared at the ticket, eyes gradually coming into focus and rendering the black blur into distinct characters spelling out his future in bland hyper-legible font. Grumbling incoherently, he stuffed the ticket deep into his coat pocket, leaving his hand clasped about it. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to make the trip, but he’d be damned if someone was going abscond with something he owned regardless, so precious few things there were. Sleep overtook him again, blissful and laced with dreams. He could dream just the same of everyone else, no matter how much more money they had. In sleep, everyone is an equal.
The rough shake the police officer bestowed upon his supine form tore him from his illusory world of universal equality. He was used to this by now. The bench creaked in relief as he heaved himself up and walked away.
The cracks and ridges of cobblestones prodded and stabbed at his feet through soles worn thin not from heavy frequent use, but by months of soaking and drying, freezing and thawing as they were dragged doggedly through streets and blessed patches of grass. Fore Street was quiet as a premature darkness fell that evening. All but the determined bowed heads down and tucked chins into collars and scarves. All moved with hurried purpose, chilled knuckles crying out to be curled about coffees that cost more than the man had spent on food in the past three days. They would have perhaps described the temperature as “nippy”.
As the summer air had faltered and creeping cold moved southward from unseen glaciated realms of perpetual winter, sleep had come harder on overly-ventilated park benches and drafty stoops. The cashmere-bordered outstretched hands that had deposited a few coins in his empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup all but disappeared. They had come for a warm sea breeze through their hair as they dined on aquatic delicacies at the docks, perusing trinkets through windows unfettered by frost, and sunset saunters down Munjoy Hill to fireworks over the bay. Now they had returned to their homes of routine and climate control, insulation, hydrocarbon comforts.
The man had no such luxuries. He was yet still a visitor here, a newcomer unaccustomed to these new sensations tearing into his reality. Unlike the others, however, there was not a place he could retreat from into some sort of familiar comfort. Familiarity in his life meant discovery, and discovery destroyed any chance of holding onto that familiarity as men and women that wore shining badges of power on their chests bid him begone from that small comfort of the known before they left to comfort of their own. They all breathed steam in the day, but only he at night.
It had been much the same in New York. Wood board and turf mattresses snatched from beneath him by hundreds of nameless faces. Days and nights blurred together and sleep measured in minutes rather than hours as he retired and retired and retired and retired and retired in a dozen different impromptu beds and improvised pillows of Pringles cans if he was lucky, or his own arms if he was not. He did not succumb to the stereotype of newspaper blankets, but on nights where his motley collection of handout blankets failed to keep the cold at bay, his clothing was lined with crumpled up political columns and bundles of comics, advice, and crime. Even with his headline insulation, he often remained awake and shivering, staring into the orange glow of the city sky that cloaked the autumn stars. He stayed in shelters from time to time, but the culture of the other inhabitants drove him away to the comparative tranquility of the solitude and rhythmic white noise of the traffic.
Not a true solitude. He was not alone in the middle of the city, but if the eyes of most passers by could be believed, he wasn’t actually huddled in a shelter made of a rectangular crevice in a building wall. Sometimes he shivered because it was cold. Others because he couldn’t control his limbs as forty-eight hours without sleep disconnected his fingers from his mind and his mind from reality. A stomach rumbling with hunger could not be placated as he could not muster the energy to plead for sustenance, though neither could he sleep in more than split-second droops of eye and head.
Rain after the sun had retired was the worst. Heat one can escape through shedding layers and fleeing to the comfort of shade. Cold can be staved off through blankets and insulation. Rain eventually soaked through ragged blue jeans and snuck around corners of haphazard plastic shields of black garbage bags and discarded umbrellas bent backwards from the wind.