Multitudes below the poverty lines – A quote from Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy”


America 2

…the tramps, the down-and-outs, the shopping-bag ladies, the drifters and drunks: they range from the merely destitute to the wretchedly broken. Wherever you turn, they are there, in good neighborhoods and bad. Some beg with a semblance of pride. Give me this money, they seem to say, and soon I will be back there with the rest of you, rushing back and forth on my daily rounds. Others have given up hope of ever leaving their tramphood. They lie there sprawled out on the sidewalk with their hat, or cup, or box, not even bothering to look up at the passerby, too defeated even to thank the ones who drop a coin beside them. Still others try to work for the money they are given: the blind pencil sellers, the winos who wash the windshield of your car. Some tell stories, usually tragic accounts of their own loves, as if to give their benefactors something for their kindness – even if only words.

Others have real talents. The old black man today, for example, who tap-danced while juggling cigarettes – still dignified, clearly once a vaudevillian, his mouth fixed in a half-remembered stage smile. The are also the pavement chalk artists and musicians: saxophonists, electric guitarists, fiddlers. Occasionally, you will even come across a genius.

But beggars and performers make up only a small part of the vagabond population. They are the aristocracy, the elite of the fallen. Far more numerous are those with nothing to do, with nowhere to go. Many are drunks – but that term does not do justice to the devastation they embody. Hulks of despair, clothed in rags, their faces bruised and bleeding, they suffle through the streets as though in chains. Asleep in doorways, staggering insanely throught traffic, collapsing on sidewalks – they seem to be everywhere the moment you look for them. Some will starve to death, others will die of exposure, still others will be beaten or burned or tortured.

For every soul lost in this particular hell, there are several others locked inside madness – unable to exit to the world that stands at the threshold of their bodies. Even though they seem to be there, they cannot be counted as present. The man, for example, who goes everywhere with a set of drumsticks, pounding on the pavement with them in a reckless, nonsensical rhythm, stooped over awkwardly as he advances along the street, beating and beating away at the cement. Perhaps he thinks he is doing important work. Perhaps, if he did not do what he did, the city would fall apart. Perhaps the moon would spin out of its orbit and come crashing into the earth…”

The New York Trilogy.
City of Glass.
Ed. Penguin Classics. Pg. 106-107.