A talk with Jerry in Tompkins Square Park

From Vol. 3, No. 1, 1997

a talk with Jerry in Tompkins Square Park, with Louis Rastelli

I first met Jerry while I was guarding the van outside the Pyramid Club last August, where the American Devices were having their American Debut (see Rob Labelle’s letter to the club owner in the first Fish Piss to get an idea about how that went…) He was standing in front of Sok’s Grocery on Avenue A, shaking a cup full of change.
When we first got there and got out of the van, we were wondering aloud where there might be a bank machine, and automatically Jerry looked over to us and told us where there was one. Then one of us needed a light, and again, there he was with a lighter. While standing there I noticed almost everyone who passed by him said “Hey, Jerry, whassup,” and I thought “who needs a tour guide with him around.”
We started talking while I stood near the van, and he kept an eye on it for me a couple times when I went to get beer & check out some of the Device’s set.
The next time I was in New York was a month later, while hanging out and distributing the first Fish Piss. Sitting on a bench in Tompkin’s Square Park, he passed by me and we recognized each other. “Remember me,” I said, “little while back, with that van?” He was already nodding, “Oh yeah, I remember everybody.”
He sat down on my bench to finish his bag of chips, and we just started talkin’. Couple hours passed, and I told him about Fish Piss & how I write stuff a lot. Jerry was just full of stories, and I asked if I could maybe write some down someday. He was totally into it, and I told him I’d come back the next day with some paper and a tape recorder and we’d start. Before parting, I gave him a twenty ‘cause I felt bad spending all that time talking to him when he could’ve been standing at his spot.
Before I left, he said, “I hope you write this story.”
I said “I will, I will. I don’t have to write much, it’s just reality, man. I don’t have to come up with anything.”
“I’ve still gotta go make a bit more but thank you for this, I appreciate that.”

Next day, we sat on a bench again,  talking and digging the crowd on this fine summer day in Tompkins Square Park. I’m going to make a short book of his life, print it up and bring it down to all the stores Fish Piss is in. (I’ll let him go collect all the profits once they’re sold. I think it’ll sell OK ‘cause everybody around there knows Jerry, and he’s lived one hell of a life.)

We talked a lot about back when Tompkins Square Park was full of tents, tents all over the place, people living in them, partying in them, hanging out. They called it “Tent City” and it was around for awhile, until one day the cops brought in a small army and cleared it all out. Riot cops were busting heads, cops lined the streets to arrest anyone trying to get away… As soon as it looked like there was no hope, people started setting their tents on fire, and all of tent city burned down. The story here picks up when me & Jerry were talking a little bit about all that.
Jerry: I wanna live. And then you know I realized it was a cold winter out here. Freezin weather out here. Even though we had tents, and even after they burned them down I was still out here, right, sleepin on the sidewalk, freezin. Try and keep warm, I didn’t know if I was gonna live through the night, the next day, whatever. People froze to death out here.
(We gazed at the steel fences around the grass in the park after tent city burned down.)
Louis: Man, it seems like they put up these fences to try and close it in and just wait for everyone outside to die off.
Jerry: Yeah, and that’s the strangest thing around, because a whole lot of homeless people die, they die, it’s not just here, it’s everywhere, and it’s scary. It’s like they waitin for the homeless people to die and that solves the problem of the homeless people.
I don’t like that, man, it’s gettin crazy, fuck.
Louis: I don’t know if it’s the same thing here, but in Montreal, they’ve got a lot of empty buildings.
Jerry: Yeah?
Louis: And then there’s so many people on the street, mostly kids, too, and they have to sleep in the parks, you know. There was this one park where most of them used to hang out at ‘cause there was a fountain and they could wash & stuff (Berri Square), and what they did is change the name of the park so that there’d be a curfew, and they just cleared ‘em all out. But they don’t give them anywhere else to go, so they just end up… walkin’ around.
I don’t know what the hell they expect them to do when you can’t try getting a job when you don’t have money for food. What are ya gonna do, eat, or blow the cash printing up and faxing resumes, buying bus tickets to get to job interviews, all that. Not much point showing up at a job interview if you’re too weak to stand up.
One thing a lot of these kids do now is squeegeeing? (I made motions like squeegeeing a windshield.)
Jerry: Yeah, they used to do that here. With the windows of cars? They don’t do that no more, man. A whole lot of people used to do that on Park, used to be safe ground, I used to do that all along there. They cleaned that out. They cleaned all that out.
Louis: They’re doing that in Montreal now, too. $120 if you’re caught with a squeegee. Even if you’re just walking with one, the cops can stop you and take it away.
Jerry: Ah, man.
Louis: And if you lose that, too, you’re losin your food, you don’t have anything left. It’s scary, man. I don’t know what they’re trying to do.
Jerry: I don’t know, but… it’s workin, whatever they got planned, it’s just totally workin.
(We both laugh, but scarily, like we’re in bad awe.)
You know what I realized, too? You try and get some help, first they call you a homeless. I mean, that’s the label they put on you. In reality, you’re just a number in society, you don’t exist. But you here, you’re 42, you’re 41, ‘Hey, who’s he? He ain’t got nothin together yet? He ain’t gonna make it.’ But me, you know what? I’m no drunk, and you know what? I ain’t no loser. And people give me respect for standin out here all day long, and there’s people that encourage me, they make me strong. I got good people.

months later:
I saw Jerry again when I was in New York in February with the second Fish Piss. I treated him to a meal (where he bought the cheapest thing on the menu even though I insisted he go all out).
Jerry: It changed. Man, the last time you came and hang out around here, it was so cool, I dunno what happened, man. It all got, like, all dark. I’m telling you, it changed a whole lot.
Louis: How do you mean?
Jerry: We’ve lived out here before, but it’s not the same. There ain’t no homeless people livin out here. I don’t know where they’re goin’, but they ain’t livin out here. I see maybe one or two, and they’re like old black guys I used to see around.
Louis: It’s true, I remember that squat on 5th last summer…
Jerry: Yeah. They moved all the people out.
Louis: I guess under bridges, you might find more & more, in old buildings…
Jerry: Down by the river, you used to see people livin down there. It’s like, over there, right (he motioned with his hands past Ave. B). You see so many people with no homes, it’s amazing. I dunno. But I’d rather never go down to that river. That’s a dangerous place.
One time some drunk guy walked by, looked to Sandra (Jerry’s wife of 15 years) and he said to me “Do you mind?” “You don’t mind, I’ll mind my wife myself!”
Louis: What about in Harlem?
Jerry: You know, even in Harlem. These kids are freaking out. Man I used to sleep in the hallways, but now they got new laws. They got police all over the projects. Yeah, they’re everywhere, one on each floor. Now they’re talkin about puttin in some cameras. So they could see every move you make. In the hallways, in the staircase.
Louis: But at the same time that they’re spending all this money to do this shit to keep these kids from doing this crazy shit, they should also give some money for other things so that these kids don’t have to do these things to live.
Jerry: That’s true too.
Louis: Would you say it’s worse now than in tent city… or I guess it’s just different…
Jerry: Mmm hmm. I’m not sayin it was real good or anything back in the day, but there wasn’t this shit goin’ like this. Everybody was just high. Sit in their tent. Somethin happen, you’d be drunk too, you don’t know what happened, you’d say “Oh, what happen.” But now, I don’t know what the hell is goin’ on.
Louis: So back then, once you got a bottle for the night, it was over, that was the goal, have some fun, but now…
Jerry: I stopped drinkin’ a long time ago. I’ve seen too many people die from that, it’s crazy. The goal right here now is to live. You don’t know if you’ll wake up to see tomorrow. You don’t know if you’ll still be alive.
Louis: How old were you when you started like this?
Jerry: Fifteen, sixteen.
Louis: What would you do after school back then? School would end, you were homeless…
Jerry: I had friends, you know, I was young, we’d hang out, sometimes I’d do odd jobs, run errands and things like that. Stay at people’s houses, friend’s parents houses, help them out a bit and they’d buy me some clothes, you know. Back then you could get clothes for $2, something like that, I’d say “OK.” But I was scared a bit of stayin’ at people’s houses, you know.
Louis: Did you sleep outside a lot?
Jerry: I’d sleep in hallways and stuff, you know. I’d get out in the mornin before anyone saw me. I said ‘nobody gonna bother me’, you know. I was scared, you know, it was like I was fightin the whole world by myself. (Both his parents died when he was 15 and he was an only child.)
Louis: I guess sleepin in hallways isn’t something you could do today…
Jerry: Nooo-nooo! (shakes his head vigorously.) Now everything’s different. It’s gotten bad. Yeah. You used to be able to go to hospitals, you know, sign up and sleep there. You can’t do that no more.
Louis: What did you used to tell them, that you were sick or something?
Jerry: Yeah, you know, say you got high blood pressure, bad headache or something. One time, we went to Bellevue Hospital. Me and Sandra, we were waiting in the room as usual, then someone comes out, he looks all cool, and says “Anybody here that don’t got no job, come with me, we got something special for you to fill out,” you know. We looked at each other, they never done that before, you know. Somethin ain’t right about this. We just left. And they were goin’ to jail.
Louis: Oh yeah?
Jerry: Yeahh, man. They led them out to the side, me and Sandra were watching from across the street, and this guy came out and just put handcuffs on everybody. This big van pulled up, and that was that. I seen so much stuff like that. Half those people are still in jail. Just ‘cause they got nowhere to go.
Louis: I noticed since last summer when I came that there’s no one panhandling on the streets at all. Used to be so many.
Jerry: I’m the only, only guy doin’ this, & I get scaaaa-red. (nervous laugh) I get scared when I think they’re not letting anyone else doin’ this. And I think, what’s goin’ on. And I’m like, somethin’ ain’t right. What they got planned for me?
Louis: The park seemed different just walkin’ through.
Jerry: It’s a whole different atmosphere. You know what it is? It’s a whole different personality, it’s not the same.
Louis: Do you think it’s the drug problem being bigger?
Jerry: It’s the young generation. There are very, scary kids out there. They’re scary. I see them hangin round the corner.
Louis: You were telling me about how when you were a teenager  you would stand on the corner and sing music with your friends for drinkin money. They don’t do that anymore.
J: No, they don’t do that. They walk around with 9mm. At night, right, they walk around it’s like gangsters. The whole park here. And most of the ladies out there, they’re a little scared, right. And it’s not just that, it could happen to anybody, anybody, and I don’t want nothin to happen to nobody. It’s a crazy world.
Louis: Yup.
We finished up our meal, and he went back to the corner to make some money. He’s just staying on the couch with his wife at his mother-in-law’s place, and needs to pay a bit of rent and his own food ‘cause his mother-in-law has a lot of foster children to take care of. He’s been filling out forms for months trying to get some social security (like welfare, I guess), and hopes to get his own place soon. He hasn’t had one in a long, long time. If you’re ever in New York, you should pass by Sok’s Grocery near Tompkins Square on Ave. B, throw him a little change and tell him Louis says Hi! from Montreal.