Love on the Streets
When hard times meet Valentines
It’s morning in the Bowery, a somewhat grimy neighborhood in southern Manhattan. Across the street from a soup kitchen, two figures sprawl on a colorful floral comforter.
Gray roots betray the woman’s honey brown hair. She stretches her legs over her companion, a middle-aged man in a touristy black NYC cap whose smile cracks into crow’s feet around his eyes.
“We’re just really good friends, first and foremost,” she says.
Lori, who looks like she’s in her 50s, was in a mental institution with bipolar disorder for 10 years. Determined to live independently, she came to New York City looking for work. She couldn’t find a job, but she did meet “King Ray” at a park.
“I saw him on his own, and it made me want to be more like him,” Lori said. He taught her to do something new: relax.
“When I’m with him, we don’t have to do anything but lay back sometimes, something I haven’t done since I was very young,” she says. “Lay back and just ... almost imagine you’re just watching the TV screen, you know?”
King Ray nods, chuckling.
Photo by Sam Falconi
“This is a big, giant TV,” he says, gesturing to the streetscape in front of him. “When the bus comes by and blocks your view … that’s a commercial.”
I seem to pass more and more homeless couples lately. Though there’s not much data on them, we know that homeless families are on the rise, and it seems like couples are following this trend. Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, suspects that homeless couples are both increasing in number and making up a larger percentage of the homeless population.
Others are noticing this trend, too: Filmmaker Paul Bettany was inspired to make Shelter by a homeless couple living outside his Tribeca apartment. The drama, released last September, tells the story of a pair of homeless drug addicts (Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Connelly) who fall in love.
While King Ray and Lori’s romance is still fairly casual, many homeless relationships are quite the opposite: Charise and her husband, Mike, are in their 40s (though Charise looks 25) and have been together since they met at a homeless shelter five years ago.
“I fell in love with him as soon as I saw him,” remembers Charise.
“It was sort of love at first sight,” agrees Mike in his heavy New York accent.
“Not sort of. What do you mean, sort of?”
We’re sitting on broken-down cardboard boxes under an awning near Union Square in Manhattan. Mike and Charise have been homeless for 15 years.
“He’s the male me, and I’m the female him,” explains Charise, scribbling a green sky in her My Little Pony coloring book to pass the time. “He’s my rock, and I’m his.” Mike nods, leaning back on a blue sleeping bag. He casually opens a local newspaper, cigarette in hand, with all the airs of a 1950s husband at his kitchen table.
Charise says people are sometimes surprised to see an African-American woman and a Korean man together.
“I was in love with Bruce Lee for the longest time,” she says, laughing. “Now I have my own personal Bruce Lee.”
This couple moved beyond puppy love long ago. Though Mike calls Charise his wife, they’re technically just engaged. They tried to get married once, but someone stole Mike’s ID. This was especially problematic because he was born in South Korea and immigrated to New York City as a child. He says it’s harder for immigrants to get replacement IDs.
Though they don’t have much money to go around, the two find things to do. Charise remembers a day Mike playfully chased her around a park in the Bronx. He caught her, tackled her, and tickled her. The two lay there for hours, enjoying the day.
“He made me feel like a queen,” she says.
Since neither have jobs, they spend virtually all their time together. Somehow, they rarely get in fights or want space. If they argue, they make up before they go to sleep. In separate sleeping bags.
“He has a foot odor that would kill a nation,” says Charise. “I love him, but I don’t love him that much.”
He raises his eyebrows, and she kisses him. “I love you. You and your stinky feet.”
And as for physical intimacy for a couple that can’t “get a room”?
“Subway tunnels,” explains Igor, a 20-something homeless guy. He panhandles with his girlfriend, Alexis, next to a pink rolling suitcase and a cardboard sign that reads:
Looking 4 Kindness
I ♥ NYC!
It’s covered in stars. The O’s in “looking” have been turned into smiley face eyes.
“We’ve never had sex in the tunnels,” corrects Alexis, eating from a bag of Hello Kitty cotton candy, her bright blond hair framed by the fur-trimmed hood of her coat. “We do it literally on the platform.”
She says the public display doesn’t usually cause problems.
“People just ignore us,” she says in a high-pitched giggle that manages to be adorable and jolting at the same time.
“No,” Igor says, seizing his chance to correct her. “No, they don’t.” The other day, he says, a guy took out his phone and filmed them. He claimed he got the whole thing on camera and threatened: “We don’t like your kind around here.” Alexis called him a pervert, and he backed away.
When Alexis first left home, she didn’t have a destination.
“I’m kind of running away from things I’m afraid of, people I’m afraid of,” she explains. “I think I’m just really scared.”
She resorted to staying at all-night clubs and ended up on the streets, where she met Igor.
“It’s been, like, crazy magical,” she says. “We just chill. And we smoke, and talk, and have sex, and then we eat, we keep smoking, and we fall asleep, and we cuddle … and we’ve cried with each other, and we’ve hurt each other, and we love each other hard.”
Igor makes her feel protected, no small matter for a woman without anywhere safe to go. And it’s not just emotional protection: He carries a MacGyvered mace, a belt with a combination lock attached to it, just in case.
In turn, she gives him a sense of stability, being there for him and helping him out with little things.
“Like this,” she says, wiping his nose.
“Stop!” he whines, embarrassed but obviously still pleased.
“He’s a mama’s boy.”
“No, I’m not! What the hell? No, I’m not!”
As playful as they are, there seems to be something deeper going on. Alexis has left the city several times, only to come back for him.
“I don’t know what my future is,” she reflects. “I just keep ending up here ... and I keep having him in my mind … I worry about him … so I came back here, looking for him.”
She sighs. “We don’t know what forever is.” She puts her head on his shoulder and looks into his eyes. “Forever is when I wake up next to you.”
In Washington Square Park, a pack of dusty dogs and humans enjoy the sun.
Most city dogs, cooped up in apartments most of the day, resemble freed prisoners when they get to a park. But these bulldogs are content to lie on benches and sleepily nuzzle the grass. They’re used to the outdoors.
Their owners, boys in torn up canvas pants and girls in black boots, lean back on dusty camouflage travel backpacks.
As one girl playfully punches her boyfriend, a faded blue dreadlock falls over her worn Cleveland Steamers sweatshirt. A septum nose ring pierces her otherwise baby-like face.
“People mistake me for a dude all the time,” she says.
Sarawh and her boyfriend, Powers, have only been together for a few months, but they act more like buds than honeymooners.
“We’re the coolest people we know,” she tells me. Powers gives smiles abashedly, an expression somehow at odds with his bleached mohawk and black Jack Daniel’s shirt.
Sarawh’s parents struggled her whole life and only recently got a place of their own.
“For the record, they’re doing fucking good,” she’ll have you know. She understands their situation more now that she’s met other homeless people who couldn’t keep their children. Her parents were always there for her.
When Sarawh and Powers first met under a bridge near Sacramento and started going out, she brought him home.
“I got the ‘dad look,’ ” he said. Sarawh’s father immediately made him take a shower.
The couple traveled around the country, either in Sarawh’s van or hobo-style, train-hopping with their dogs. One of his dogs started getting in fights with one of hers, and the animals ended up covered in cuts and abrasions.
The couple likened themselves to stepparents whose kids hated each other. “It's either you give up one of the kids or split apart. And the dogs come first with that one,” says Powers. “You don't give up your kid.”
Sarawh and Powers were about to break up when Powers’ dog, a German shepherd named Edith, got sick and died on a Native American reservation in Montana.
Powers felt like he’d just lost a child. “I couldn't even touch [Edith],” he remembers. “All I could do was dig.” While he prepared the grave, Serawh took care of everything, even carrying Edith’s body.
“That was an honor for me. For someone to do that for me,” Powers said.
Powers pulls down his scarf to show me a tattoo on his neck—a German shepherd paw print with a scrawl: “My Édith Piaf.”
The two represent an interesting segment of the homeless couple population: the travelers.
“We’re ninja turtles,” says Powers. “We carry our homes on our backs.”
Couples like these make their way around the country together, moving more for the journey than the destination. I see similar couples camped out on busy Manhattan sidewalks all the time.
“The average couple goes on a date and spends a few hours together,” points out Alex, half of another traveling couple. “We spend 24 hours a day together.” Alex and his girlfriend, Anna, say their plentiful time together makes them go through things faster than the average couple.
“You have to laugh a lot or you end up losing your mind,” says Anna. I notice their cardboard sign: “Don't smoke rox. Just need sox.”
Their dates, in particular, are unusual. They’ve ridden trains through the Rockies, spending hours listening to the chugging locomotive and watching the mountains roll by under the stars, miles from civilization.
“You get to see parts of the country that no one—no one—has seen,” remembers Anna. “Other than people that built the railroad.”
Alex and Anna have been dating on and off since they were teenagers in their hometown in Connecticut. They left to escape a heroin epidemic.
“Kids were dropping dead,” remembers Anna. The two hitchhiked, train-hopped, and squatted in abandoned houses.
Since they have no privacy, strangers with less than altruistic intentions sometimes try to get involved. “A lot of guys think that since I’m homeless, I’m willing to do anything,” Anna explains. “A lot of guys are pigs.”
A few months ago, when Alex was dating a different girl, a local guy asked Alex how much for his then-girlfriend to perform oral sex on him.
“So I got up and beat the shit out of him,” says Alex, smiling. “Guy got put in the hospital.” He shows me his hands: They’re scarred all over, he says, from defending previous girlfriends.
They’ve run into weirder conflicts too. Once, at a massive hippie gathering in the woods, some of the group overheard the couple arguing and thought Alex was attacking Anna. The hippies, not a people to put up with violence, went after Alex. The couple took off running, jumped in their van, and drove off.
“We got run out of the woods by 50 hippies,” Anna said.
It’s hard to know how many of these stories are true. There’s no video footage to pull from a basement, no records to sort through. But if some of these tales are more myth than fact, then they’re doing what myths do: pointing at realities too universal to be limited to single moments. They’re showing me what romance means to these couples, not just what it has looked like.
Anna and Alex sometimes share a street corner with Emma (who asks that I change her name), a young woman with a bulldog by her feet, dreadlocks in her hair, and a bracing intelligence and melancholy in her eyes. She’s twanging a banjo, the only visible sign of musical training in this classically trained cellist: She used to hop trains with her cello, a 150-year-old German-made antique. Three hundred dollars’ worth of damage later, she stopped traveling with it.
Emma’s story begins like a typical Millennial’s: She started college, but costs grew too high. By the end, she was stealing textbooks from Barnes & Noble. Financial problems hit so hard that she dropped out and got evicted. She started sneaking onto an abandoned school bus at night to sleep. Eventually, she hit the road.
Now Emma lives in an old gray minivan with her boyfriend, Jake. The two have fixed up the place to look like a room: soft brown comforter on the ground, zebra-striped blanket over the window. Crates of clothes, cardboard to make signs, and about 80 pounds of dog food in back. A copy of TheCatcher in the Rye.
There’s a ram skull on the dashboard. Emma bought it from a homeless man who was selling, inexplicably, puppets and skulls. It looks out of place in her graffiti-covered van, like it has been kidnapped out of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting and just wants to roll back home. “I come across a lot of dead things,” she murmurs. “I like to clean them up.”
Emma shows me a pair of steel-toed boots she got out of a dumpster.
“She hasn’t kicked me with them yet, so I must be doing something right,” chimes in Jake, lying on the comforter. A bulldog nuzzles his face tattoos.
“Traveler kids spend more time together than married couples,” Emma explains, leaning against the van, unflinching as a car zooms by only inches away. “They’re your only constant,” she says of travelers’ significant others. “Your world changes, but they don’t.”
As Jake steps out for a moment, Emma’s eyes take on a familiar resigned gloom. She tells me that she’s not over her last boyfriend, and she knows getting involved with Jake is a mistake.
Emma used to be in a relationship with a longtime crush. He was handsome, a brilliant cook, and twice her size, which made her feel protected. “When things were good, they were awesome,” she says.
He was also an alcoholic and suffered from schizophrenia. He would frequently insult her, lie to her, and hurt her. "I just wanted him to get better so we could be together the rest of our lives,” she says quietly. My eyes flicker back to the ram skull.
While the two were staying in an eccentric old woman’s house in the Vermont woods, her boyfriend had a schizophrenic break and attacked her.
“He had this glazed-over look in his eyes, like he wasn’t even there,” she remembers.
Other traveler kids in the house ran in and beat him up. The kids got arrested, he went to the hospital, and she never saw him again.
“He changed his relationship status to ‘widowed,’ ” Emma says, “which I guess means I’m dead to him.”
Jake returns with a handful of cigarette butts he found on the street. He uses the old tobacco to hand-roll a cigarette.
“I love you,” Jake tell her, handing her the cigarette. “I love your smile. I love your beautiful eyes. But I really, really love your ugly face.”
Troubles like Emma’s aren’t unusual: Hardship makes up the borders of homeless life. Charise and Mike, for instance, have been trying to find jobs and apartments for years. The two had high hopes when a man from an aid organization said he could get them a room a few months ago. But the man stopped coming around.
As Charise describes their housing struggles, her scribbling gets fiercer. She sighs looking at the picture—a prancing unicorn. “It’s not working.” She picks up a crayon and proceeds to color the whole picture black.
Work follows a similar Kafkaesque pattern. A few months ago, a man offered Mike a dishwashing job. Mike immediately agreed, and he and Charise were thrilled. A paycheck would be a foot in the door of a new life.
The man seemed surprised to hear Mike accept the offer. He said he’d come back the next day, but he never returned. Mike and Charise realized the guy must have just wanted to see Mike’s reaction.
“Right now, we should be floating somewhere, we got so much hot air up our butts,” mutters Charise.
Mike needs back surgery. But he knows that getting surgery would mean leaving Charise on the street for a couple weeks while he recovers. He refuses to do that.
This isn’t the first medical problem Mike and Charise have had to deal with. Two years ago, when Charise was five months pregnant with their first child, she started having complications. The doctor had to induce labor. To save the baby, she says, they needed to pay for expensive procedures.
“We had no money to keep him alive,” Charise remembers. The baby passed away.
They named him Mike Pilgrim Jr. after his father. “He will always be our son,” she vows. “We’ll tell our future children about him.”
Charise shakes out of her reverie, remembering Mike frozen by the window the whole delivery, terrified. “He was the cutest thing in the world,” she laughs. “You gotta stay positive. Bitterness makes you miserable.”
It’s evening in the Bowery.
Shoes drum down the street: Converse sneakers bringing college kids to bars, Oxford loafers rushing investors home for a few hours of sleep. Shoes weaving around cigarette smokers, pushing strollers, running to catch a taxi.
Only two pairs of sneakers are motionless. They’re resting against one another on a floral comforter, attached to a familiar pair of New Yorkers: Lori relaxes into King Ray’s lap, and he nuzzles her hair.
As the sunset fades to night, the two merge into an L-shaped silhouette against the fluorescent shop lights, hands intertwined, watching their TV show go by.