Bug, that’s what she called herself, sits outside the Barnes & Noble on 66th street, her cardboard sign advertising the usual “homeless and hungry” pitch. But unlike the other homeless teenagers, she has a book in her hand every time I see her, and never calls out to people for spare change. When I see her, it’s usually at night and she’s nodding off.
One night last fall, I asked her where she was from, and she gave “Upstate New York, between Albany and Poughkeepsie” as the locale. When asked why she doesn’t return home, she said “my mother’s live-in fiancé doesn’t want me back.”
We sat down at the picnic tables on the Lincoln Square triangle, and in between picking up cigarette stubs, she told me how she’d been here for a month.
“It was a three-day concert at the Nokia theatre,” she says, “and that was about a month ago. On the last day, I called and he told me not to return home.”
Does she think of going back? “Nah,” she replied, “the guy’s a dickhead, he puts on a happy face, then acts real nasty at home.” She says her real father is deceased.
Bug’s hometown isn’t that far away, so I suspected (correctly) that she’d been here on more than one occasion.
“What do you like best about Manhattan?” I asked.
She paused, and said “I don’t stand out, nobody bothers me.”
“You mean you stood out back home?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she replied, becoming more animated. “I like to listen to different music, like other drugs too, get into fights, there’s a lot of rednecks up there, they call me a hippy.” She gestures with her hands as if to say “you know the rest.”
I asked where she sleeps. “Central Park” she said, but didn’t want to tell me exactly where, except that it was a “very discreet place.” She says she goes into the park around 11 p.m. “Sometimes the cops will yell LEAVE and I’ll just move to another spot. Every now and then they might arrest you for vagrancy.”
“What about hygiene?,” I asked.
“Dude I know, he has a place, they gave him an apartment, he lets me shower there. But I haven’t seen him in three days since he got arrested. I met him back in January, but I’ve only been living in the city for a month.”
Her friend’s absence is a problem, as she doesn’t like sleeping alone in the park. She says there are “freaky old men”. One night she woke up to find an old man rubbing her back. She woke her boyfriend and he chased the guy away.
For food, people “kick down” their leftovers, often bringing fruit from the stalls. For a toilet? “Starbucks!” she says, with a big grin.
“Do they ever give you shit?” I asked.
“No, only if you try to take a bath in the restroom. A guy tried that once.”
Did she have conflict with other homeless people?
“Definitely. These signs (the cardboard “homeless and hungry” signs) are like gold, and some people try to take them. One guy chased me away, said he’d been sitting in that space for 5 years. I’m not going to fight with a mean guy with a crate. But this guy has a place to live and he gets a check every month, so what the hell is he doing this for? But now, these people that panhandle, we pretty much have an understanding.”
To keep busy, she reads books that are given away by passerby. “I do a lot of planning,” she added, “I don’t want to be like this forever.”
As for the “regular” people, she has no problem with most. “But the ones who say things, they don’t know what they’re talking about. I had a variety of nasty people, one yelled “go home and get a job you lazy bitch” and an old woman, must’ve been 80, called me a “street trashy whore”. I got in front of her and said “want to say that again?” The woman got all apologetic, but I said “if you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your mouth shut.”
I asked her if the police are a problem.
“No, they only hassle us either because they think we look too young to be on the street or because they think we’re teenage runaways. Some can be dickheads, but it depends on the cop. I had two that kept me there and wouldn’t let me leave until I gave them my Mom’s number. She’s a good person, but her guy, he’s a dickhead and he’ll just make stuff up if they call him.”
There are other homeless kids in the area, such as a pair I see in front of Food Emporium.
“The girl in front of the supermarket could go home if she wants,” says Bug, “A lot of the “Crusty” kids come from homes with money, and their parents would let them back in. I guess she likes her life right now, and I like mine too, but I wish I could get a job.”
The term “Crusties”, by the way, refers to the homeless kids in Tompkins Square Park, who rarely bother coming this far Uptown. Bug says that there’s been an influx of homeless kids on the Upper West Side, so the police want to know which ones are runaways, homeless, minors, legally adults.
The locals of her own age aren’t a problem, she says. Nobody can figure out why, but she gets more “kick downs” from the younger crowd. The biggest one was a $100 bill from a Spanish-American in a suit and tie. She never saw him again.
As far as work goes, she describes herself as having had jobs since age 13, on local farms and stores until she ended up in New York. When I asked if she’d thought of joining one of the new “organic nature farms” sprouting up, she shook her head. “I’ve had it with farm work,” she says. “When you grow up in the country, all you see are farms, and that’s enough. The only farm work I’ll do now is if I have a garden. When I get out of the city, I’m going to head for the Southwest, maybe settle down in Oregon.”
“Why Oregon?” I asked.
“Don’t know, I guess Oregon’s a beautiful place, and it’s far from New York. When you’re a hitchhiker, New York is the worst place to go because you get stuck. You can’t just jump a train or leave on foot. You can take a bus, but it’s a pain in the ass. I might take a Greyhound to Florida.”
“Why do you stay on the Upper West Side?” I ask. “I always see more homeless kids on the Lower East Side.”
She pauses, then says “we’re not really Crusty kids, they’re a whole different group than ours. They like to get drunk and get in fights, we like to go to museums, sneak into movies, read in the libraries. Even with the negative stuff, 80 percent of the people here are amazing to us. And you have the ‘Imagine’ circle in the park.” At the mention of the Lennon memorial she smiles and becomes more animated again.
She describes the “Crusties” as being more on the self-destructive side. “A lot of them are on heroin or they’re alcoholics, some of them get killed when they hop trains. Not the subways, just freight trains.”
I ask her what brings them to the city. She shrugs and says “I guess all the trains bring them here, or they just want the cheap beer and drugs.”
Before coming down to NYC, she describes herself as having gone to Columbia Green, a small Community College in Upstate New York. A drug habit got in the way of her studies, though she’s reluctant to elaborate on what kind of drug.
“I lost a good friend to it, so that kind of scared me into getting off it. A lot of people think it’s fun and games, and that it’s natural and you can’t OD and die, but they’re dead wrong.”
I have one final question. With the influx of young homeless on the Upper West Side, does she think the national financial crisis has something to do with her situation?
“Definitely,” she says, “if my mother weren’t financially dependent on that guy, she wouldn’t have to be with him, and I could go back to living with her.”
(Bug was still in the Lincoln Square area in April.)