September 2012

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Chris of Astoria

by Jonathan Wallace

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
--T.S. Eliot

Chris died a couple nights ago. I found out today. I had been a bit short with him recently. I always looked for him and said hello, but I hadn't stopped to talk with him in a few weeks. Too busy.

Chris lived in the open passageway from a municipal parking lot to 31st street in Astoria when I first met him. More recently, as the weather got warmer, he had moved a few feet onto the sidewalk. He sat in his living space most of every day, listening to an old transistor radio, which he told me was always tuned to Bloomberg Business News. He was tall, straight-backed, gray, large-bearded, Greek: he spoke English almost perfectly, a little haltingly sometimes. He didn't seem to drink alcohol, and he wasn't schizophrenic. He was very proud, very polite. He told me he had lived in that spot for thirteen years. He could have been fifty, or seventy.

Chris usually had a hat in front of him into which people dropped money, but he was too proud to to ask. He never hustled you, never hit you up for anything. The first time I spoke to him, I was headed to the 7-11 nearby, and it occurred to me to ask if he would like some orange juice. He said, "I can afford that." I brought him a small bottle as a gift. After that, he refused all offers amicably. My wife and I greeted him once and I said, "We're going for pizza, can I bring you anything?" He smiled and said no, and I stopped offering. I believed that it was important to him, as it was to me, that our friendship had nothing to do with money, or food, or my giving anything to him.

We talked about politics, about the presidential election, and about the health care reform in particular. He had some misinformation about the American system, what was guaranteed and what wasn't, but nothing that unusual for a man who had come here from another country. He was very stubborn, very insistent in a gentle way, and I stopped trying to correct him.

He got irritable with me a couple of times in our early encounters. One time I started telling him about my years on ambulances and he interrupted me, "We are not conducting an interview." Later, however, he was interested in my life and asked me questions about the law, so possibly I just caught him on a bad day the first time. When he wasn't in his place for a couple of days, I got nervous and when I saw him again, told him I had been looking for him. "I don't want you to look for me," he said, annoyed: "I am a single man," meaning he could go where he wanted, maybe even had a girlfriend. Just once, I saw the more traditional alcoholic homeless woman from across the street sitting with him in his passageway, chatting. Another time, an older woman, all in black, was shouting at him in Greek. He shouted too, with an injured expression; I always wanted to ask him if she was family, or just a busy-body.

He had played basketball in Greece, been in the military, facts he volunteered in one of our longer conversations. I wanted to ask him how he became homeless, and in particular, what it would take to get him off the street. But I was afraid to press, to trespass in that zone of pride and privacy. One night, I told him I had just attended a meeting of a housing organization. Highly interested, he spoke of a federal agency building houses for the homeless. That was a natural segue, but I still hesitated to ask the question.

I imagined bringing two folding chairs, and sitting with him for an hour or so, maybe getting the whole scoop. I daydreamed that one day I would buy him an airline ticket to Greece, if he still had people there. Yesterday, before I found out Chris was dead, I looked for traces of him on the Internet, and found stories about other homeless people in Astoria. "Cadillac Man" had lived for more than a decade under the MetroNorth overpass a few yards from Chris' parking lot, then published a novel and got off the street. A local businessman had bought an airline ticket some years back for a Greek homeless man, not Chris, but he came back from Greece a few months later and took up residence again on his corner.

One day, after one of our conversations, Chris reached out and shook my hand. How he knew I wouldn't recoil I am not sure. He did the same once or twice more after that.

The last time I stopped to speak with him, the conversation petered out quickly. I stood, smiling, feeling a bit awkward, yawned a little, and Chris said good night. He dismissed me with a smile, very sensitive to mood, not giving me a chance to relaunch the conversation.

I gave him my card once, and told him to call me if the cops or EMT's ever hassled him. He seemed pleased, but I never got the phone call. Did he keep my card, lose it, throw it away? In a novel, the police would have found it and called me when he died. In real life, I saw people looking at his heap of possessions, his clothes and food, and went over to see notes that others had placed, a cross of cardboard, his name spelled out on the sidewalk in cereal, the most transient of memorials.

Just once, when my wife and I greeted him and then walked down the passageway (the parking lot is a shortcut from 31st street to the streets behind), he called my name and I went back and spoke with him another few minutes. He never did that again, though he could have and it would have been all right.

At this late date, dozens of people I knew well or casually have died. Some I was related to, some I knew slightly, some were good friends, one I might have fallen in love with if things went a little differently. I don't think I ever grieved for anyone very intensely in my life, and then after September 11 and my work on ambulances death became even more a feature in the every day landscape and I thought, I have become hard.

But I cried for Chris tonight. Most of the people who died whom I really cared about had a diagnosis, and a long time to put their thoughts in order, and for me to get used to the idea they were going away. Chris was strong, healthy looking, mobile; I never really looked at him with EMT eyes, but if I had, would have said he wasn't short of breath and his color was good. Perhaps I should have offered one day to take his pulse and his blood pressure. But I never thought of it, and I doubt he would have let me.

I know when we cry for others, we are at least partly crying for ourselves. It had been a long time since I felt that a death was surprising, sudden, unfair. It had been a long time since I felt.

I have a sense of failure, that I could have done more for Chris. I am a dreamer, and I frequently build entire structures of desire in my head which take the place of action. Yeats wrote: "And this brought forth a dream and soon enough/ This dream itself had all my thought and love." Zola said of one of his characters, "All his virility passed in dreams."

I once procrastinated when I knew a friend was dying. I had the phone call I planned to make to her sketched out entirely in thought, but never made it, and then it was too late. I have endlessly encountered in my life the phenomenon of dreaming time away, coupled with a sense one has endless time, almost eternity to do the right thing, to straighten things out, to remove the thorn from one's own paw by removing one from someone else's.

Though I did not know Chris was dying, the two situations have something in common. I had lost touch with my friend, and I wasn't sure she would want to hear from me now that she had only weeks or days to live. I could not say whether the phone call would be a mitzvah or an intrusion.

Chris was a very proud man, and he had pushed back when I was intrusive. He did not want me looking for him. I imagined I would sit with him one day, or on a few days, win his trust, get him to tell me more about his life: his last name, whether he had people here or in Greece, the circumstances which had put him on the street. I was certainly a bit lazy and distracted: the day when I would bring two chairs, and spend an hour with him, never arrived; over the summer, I had some problems of my own to solve (which in perspective, were nothing like his; I had an electrical surge which destroyed some appliances in my home; he had no home). But there was also the knowledge that it is very easy, especially for privileged Caucasians with an education, to fall into a supercilious persona, Super Duper Helper Man, solver of everyone else's problems.

Maybe helping people is somewhat like software development: you can be the best coder in the world, but that skill is useless if no-one has defined the requirements. When I first met Chris, I was very eager to do something for him; my optimism faded substantially the day he told me he had lived in that passageway and on that sidewalk thirteen years. I knew there were people who were voluntarily homeless, who could not adapt to life within walls any more, who would always return to the street after a while. Chris, as my wife pointed out to me yesterday, had his space, his life, and his relationships defined. He had a place in the world, and held it with dignity. He wasn't chaotic, not thrashing around.

When he died, I still thought about helping. I could go into the Greek Orthodox church and see about a memorial or a prayer for him. But I only knew he was Greek, not whether he was Orthodox, or observant, or conversely angry at religion. I knew that whatever I did along those lines, unless guided by someone who knew him better, would be the actions of Super Duper Helper Man. Anyway, the least significant kind of help you can be to anybody, is after they have died. I didn't really believe he cared about that--didn't even know if he wanted family notified, for maybe he sought obscurity from them.

When I peel the dreaming away, what I am left with is that I took the time to speak with him, never walked by without greeting him, gave him my card even if he never called, and shook his hand. Maybe that's enough. But I don't know.

On the sidewalk, on 31st, an older Greek woman in black, possibly the same one I saw shouting at him, tidied up his memorial: she placed a box with his transistor radio, some candles around it, some hand written notes, some oranges (a Greek tradition, maybe?) and two small American flags taped to the wall above. I saw her there and tried to ask her about Chris--would there be a funeral? "No funeral." But beyond that, she did not speak English well enough, and I received no information. Who was I, anyway, to ask for any?

I miss him and wish he was there; every one anchors the world in their corner, or, if they are not that heavy, at least pins down a piece of it. Without Chris, 31st Street is starting to float away, become unsubstantial; there is a missing piece; there is a piece of me missing. I needed Chris to be there, to be all right, more than I knew.

So it is...that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed.--Norman Maclean

Here is the only picture I could find of Chris.