Talking to the Homeless about White Privilege (A True Story)

homeless

It was just after sunrise when I got off the 2 train at 72nd Street and Broadway. Since I had not spent much time in the city for almost a decade, I bought a cup of coffee and sat down in the little park across the street from the old Central Savings Bank Building to reminisce. When a homeless man asked me “for a few bucks to buy some drugs and alcohol” I laughed and started digging in my wallet.

“Thanks pal,” he said as I continued to dig. “Life comes at you fast. Just yesterday I was free, white and 21, and now look at me. I’m a god damned bum.”

“Let me see if I have any more,” I said, handing him a one-dollar bill and continuing to dig inside my wallet.

“Bill Winthrop,” he said, extending his hand as though he were daring me to shake it. “Pleased to meet.”

“Stanley W. Rogouski,” I responded, shaking the proffered hand. “Likewise.”

I examined the man more closely. In the strictest sense, unshaven, ragged clothes, asking for money in public, he did resemble the stereotypical “bum.” He was also strikingly handsome, or at least must have been when he was younger. He tall, slim well over six feet, and had a long, full, luxurious, head of hair, which was turning gray, but retained enough of its dark, youthful color that for some reason I thought more of a down on his luck Alfred Lord Tennyson than a New York City panhandler. I’d guess he was about 60 years old.

“You don’t look like you’re from New York,” he said. “Nobody from New York sits in this park.”

“I lived in New York for many years,” I said, handing him a five-dollar bill. “But when it got too expensive, I moved back to New Jersey.”

“What exit?” he said.

“Exit 136 on the Garden State Parkway,” I said, laughing, “Cranford, Clark, Winfield, Linden, Roselle, Union County, New Jersey, the garden spot of the Garden State.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said. “You’re from the suburbs. Nobody from New York sits in this park because bums come up to them and hassle them for money.”

“Do you sleep on the streets?”

“Once in a while,” he said, “but I mostly sleep on friend’s couches, or try to find a shelter when I wear out my welcome.”

“I don’t like the term bum,” I said, handing him a ten-dollar bill. “It’s dehumanizing. I used to do the same thing as you did. I was always in between apartments, sleeping on people’s couches. Then I moved back in with my parents. The they died, and now I own their house and will probably be exactly where you are when the money for the property taxes runs out.”

“Maybe you’re a bum too.”

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I said, “from one bum to another.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

That phrase you used, free white and twenty-one. It’s such an odd phrase. I’ve never heard it before. What does it mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just something my grandfather used to say.”

“Did you grow up in New York?”

“No,” he said. “I grew up in Alabama.”

“Ah,” I said. “That explains it. It makes sense, one of those weird southern phrases like ‘that dog won’t hunt.’ “

“I guess so,” he said.

“Interestingly enough,” I added. “You don’t have a southern accent.”

“That because I used to take diction classes,” he said, “burned the fucking cracker right out of me.”

“Diction classes?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes. I had diction classes when I was younger,” he said. “I came to New York to become an actor, but it didn’t work out. Back then when I got to the city in the 1970s all they were hiring was kikes and wops and they never gave any parts to real Americans like you and me. Everybody wanted the next Al Pacino or Robert Deniro or Dustin Hoffman and then in the 1980s it got worse. All they wanted were niggers and spics and Chinks excuse my French and then in the 90s fags and then in the 2000s who the fuck knows. Goddammit. This used to be a great country. Now it’s gone all to hell. Fucking political correctness. Oh, and these days. These days it’s even worse with all the freak trannies. You’re misgendering me. You’re misgendering me. You’re misgendering me. You know one of these days I’m going to strangle one of those fucking trannies and leave his body in the middle of fucking Times Square. Oh, I’m sorry. Leave their body in the middle of Times Square. Snap. I’m going to snap his neck just like that. Snap.”

Bill picked up a twig and snapped it in half. I was taken aback, not only by the vehemence of his racism, but also by the smell of cigarettes and alcohol on is breath, which I finally noticed. To be quite honest, I also felt afraid for my life. I’m no coward, but Bill was not only a very tall man, at least 6’3” and probably closer to 6’4” or 6’5”, but well-built for a man of his age who was living on the streets. I even wondered for a moment if perhaps he was an undercover police officer posing as a homeless man but quickly dismissed the idea because he seemed so authentically, violently angry, angry almost to the point of mental illness, and in a way that seemed to come out of nowhere, like he had suddenly been possessed by the devil. My first impulse, therefore, was simply to walk away. Even if he wasn’t going to beat me senseless in a fit of nostalgic rage over the promise of his lost youth, I still didn’t want to start lecturing a homeless man about his politics or even his racism and in the end wind up as nothing but a parody of a clueless middle-class liberal. My second impulse, which I would come to regret, was to confront him. There were many homeless transgender youths living on the streets of New York City. His threats against the transgender community alarmed me. I had to say something. It was my duty as a privileged, able bodied, cis-gender white male to “call out” one of my own, even if he was living on the streets of the upper-West-Side. Just because he was homeless didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. My only chance of preventing him from attacking someone later was to forcefully confront him now, I thought.

“Bill,” I shouted. “Bill.”

“I apologize for that,” he said. “I get carried away sometimes.”

“That’s no excuse,” I said. “If you are thinking of hurting someone, especially a transgender person, you need to get help. You need to see a therapist or check yourself into rehab or something. There are some very good therapists in this city. I used to go to an MSW near Union Square. I think I still have his business card,” I added, digging back into my wallet. “He’s cheap, like only 200 dollars an hour or so.”

I handed Bill the business card, which he read, then violently threw to the ground.

“Charles W. Silverstein,” he said, “sounds like a fucking Jew.”

“I don’t know what his religion is,” I said. “He would never talk about himself.”

“Give me a fucking break,” he said. “I can’t afford that rich man’s Jew crap.”

“Look,” I said. “I know you can’t afford 200 dollars a month, but he sees people on a sliding scale and even if he can’t take you as a patient himself he might recommend someone who can or a clinic or somebody or something. There has to be something in this city for the indigent mentally ill.”

“I’m not crazy,” he said.

“I never called you crazy,” I said. “To be honest I think what you’re suffering from is a bad case of toxic masculinity and white male entitlement,” I added, beginning to feel myself growing angry. “You blame everybody for your failure to make it as an actor but yourself. Jews, Italians, blacks, Hispanics, gay people, transgender people. It’s always someone else, isn’t it? Well why don’t you try looking in the mirror for a change. Nobody owes you anything. Nothing. You want respect? Earn it. Maybe you just don’t have any talent. Maybe you should have moved on years ago.”

“Ah, maybe you’re right,” he said, sitting down on the bench, and putting his face in his hands, the transition from being violently and aggressive to being passive and shamed almost as sudden as the transition from being humorous and friendly to being violently aggressive. “Maybe you’re right. I’m just a drunken. No good. Good for nothing bum. That’s what I told you in the first place.”

“No Bill,” I shouted. “Stop saying that. You’re not a bum. Nobody’s a bum. That self-hatred is the source of your rage.”

At that moment, I felt a sharp slap to the back of my head. I was startled. I turned around and noticed a small, very spare black man with a neatly trimmed beard and graying, closely cut hair.

“Why don’t you leave Bill alone?” he said. “He didn’t do nothing to you.”

“First of all,” I said. “If you hit me again, I’m going to hit you. And you’re not going to get up.”

“Oh, I’m scared,” he said mockingly. “Why don’t you go away?”

“Didn’t you hear him? “I said. “The racism? The antisemitism? The threats of violence against gay people and transgender people?”

“Bill’s not racist. He’s only venting,” the short black man said. “You’re living on the streets you’ve got a right to vent. That’s no reason to call the man a racist. I’m known Bill ever since we were killing gooks together in Vietnam. He doesn’t hate anybody.”

“But notice how he opened up around me, a fellow white man, the way he’s never opened up around you. That’s what privilege is all about.”

“Privilege my ass,” he said. “There ain’t no privilege when you’re homeless. You’re just homeless.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said, forgetting I was talking to a homeless man. “Apparently you are unfamiliar with the term intersectionality.”

“What?” he said. “Why don’t you just go away.”

“I intend to,” I said, but not before I’ve explained myself. “What is your name.”

“My name is fuck you,” he said.

“OK fuck you,” I said. “Intersectionality,” I continued, repeating the definition on Wikipedia I had memorized from all the debates I’ve had over the years on social media, “is an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society. Intersectionality considers that various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are interwoven together. “

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“We live in a hierarchical, capitalist, white supremacist, misogynistic, homophobic, ableist society,” I continued. “There are various forms of oppression and privilege. In other words, you can be privileged in some ways, but not privileged in others. Bill and I are both white men, for example. So, we have white privilege. I live in a house, so I have class privilege. Bill lives on the streets so he doesn’t. You’re black so you don’t have white privilege, but you do have male privilege and since you probably identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, cis privilege. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, does have class privilege, but that only goes so far in this male supremacist culture. She could have all the money in the world but the powers that be in this country are not going to let you put your finger on the nuclear button unless you also have a penis. That’s what intersectionality is.”

“You’re crazy,” he said, “but you sound like one of those students up at Columbia. They’re always talking like this. Doesn’t mean they’re not cheap as hell though. Try asking them for a few bucks to get a giant slice at Coronet once in a while and see how much you get. They’re not parting with any of mommy’s trust fund. I’ll tell you that.”

“You just proved my point,” I said, clapping my hands together. “That’s all about privilege. That’s what I’m talking about. Privileged people literally cannot see poverty and oppression, even when it’s staring them right in the face. I guarantee you every one of them thinks you can just go to a bank machine and take out 100 bucks. Oppression is about invisibility as well as class. You are simply invisible. They have erased your existence.”

“Fuck you,” he said. “You’re crazy.”

“That’s ableist,” I said. “It’s hurtful. Dangerous.”

“You’re crazy,” he said. “There. Did that hurt.”

“It’s not going to hurt me,” I said. I’m an able bodied white male, but words matter. That’s why I want Bill to go get help. He made threats. I’m afraid he’s going to carry them out. That’s the only reason I’m being an asshole about this. Words have consequences.”

“You’re crazy,” he shouted, coming right up to me, standing on his toes, and breathing in my face. “You’re crazy. You’re crazy. You’re crazy. You’re crazy.”

I decided to leave, that my presence was doing more harm than good. The problem was he wouldn’t let me go. Every time I turned around to walk away he would block my path, get back up on his toes, and, while breathing heavily into my face and repeat himself.

“You’re crazy. You’re crazy. You’re crazy. You’re crazy.”

His breath wreaked of cigarettes and alcohol. For a moment I was afraid. I began to look around for a cop. Yes, I reasoned, I was probably bigger and stronger than he was, but what if I wasn’t? And what if he had a knife? Then I got angry. All my life people had been calling me crazy. My brother had “diagnosed” me with Asperger’s Syndrome. I had a nervous facial tick that over the years I had largely been able to forget but for which I had been savagely bullied all through high school. I was a social misfit, a crazy bum, and a loser, currently living a middle-class life on inherited money and property I had not earned myself, or had ever had the capability of earning, and which was going to run out sooner than I wanted to contemplate. Then I would lose it all and wind up in the streets just like Bill Winthrop and “Fuck You.” I had no talent, marketable skills or personal charm, nothing anybody wanted or ability to earn a living. All I had in the world was privilege, white privilege. I was just about to grab the little man’s wrists and throw him to the ground when Bill came between us.

“Sam,” he said. “Let him go.”

“Come on Bill. I was just fucking with him.”

Bill reached over and stuffed the money I had given him into my t-shirt.

“Take your money back,” he said.

“But I gave that to you.”

“Keep it. I don’t want it if it comes with a sermon.”

That night I was walking through Times Square on the way to NJ Transit, the 16 dollars in my pocket, knowing that earlier in the day I had behaved foolishly. I knew that I had to get rid of the money if I were to feel any better, so when I saw a man sitting down in the center island, a cup by his side, I took the money Bill had given me back earlier and stuck it in his cup. Almost as soon as I did, however, I realized that since he was an able bodied cis-gendered white male that someone else had probably needed it more, I reached back down and snatched the five and the ten-dollar bill before he could stop me, leaving the single inside the cup. At 38th Street I gave the five-dollar bill to a black woman, and at 36th Street I gave the ten-dollar bill to an old black man in a wheel chair. I rode the train back home that night feeling better about myself. I had not only learned my lesson, I had been able to translate the concept of intersectionality into practical good.

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2 comments

  1. queenbeetv queenbeetv · · Reply

    Pretty interesting story. Why can’t you get roommates in your parent’s house to pay rent to cover the property taxes?

  2. Stan,
    Welcome back. I’ve missed you. Sorry about your mother. Good story. Those guys have street smarts, and I understand why Bill doesn’t want therapy (or your money).

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