Some people say the homeless are all crazy. I used to be one of those people, but life has a way of giving perspective. Last August I lost my job, mostly out of the blue. But then again it could have had something to do with the “night caps” turning into dessert accompaniments, then lunch supplements, then semi-hourly beverages. I thought my seven years’ service would have given me some slack for occasions such as that, but I was sorely mistaken. No matter how dedicated you are to your job, they never are to you, a lesson I learned a little too late. And since then, I’ve been ‘too old’, ‘too overqualified’, and just plainly ‘not the right fit’ for seemingly anyone and everyone.
I’ve learned a lot over the past few months living on the streets. Only from the bottom can you really understand a food chain. I used to think the city was just a concrete factory of pollution and waste, bound to be swallowed whole by the ocean one day, but it isn’t so. There’s a chaotic logic about all of it, a maniacal ecosystem if you will. Beneath all the blazing lights, rushing workers and coke-snorting salesmen, there’s a certain artistic method to it all, even if it happens to resemble modern art.
The richest folk descend from their penthouses and scatter amongst the mid-tiers, passing by the other homeless and myself with their bug-antennae ear pods and feet almost as quick as their flapping lips. Every now and then one of those cloud folks will toss a few extra coins, but most of them travelled only with a briefcase, phone, platinum Amex, and no change to spare. Those people didn’t have as much as a glance to offer us. While we might not see many direct contributions from them at the bottom of the barrel, we knew most of those penthouse dwellers were paying those who might.
Then there were those who were rich, but not quite rich enough to live in a gold-plated cloud. Those folks would funnel in from the suburbs, roaring through on the NJ Transit, always late and frustrated as they ascended from the subway stations. They looked older than the penthouse dwellers, no matter the age comparison. A thirty-year-old from Hackensack looked older than a sixty-year-old from the clouds of the Upper East Side. The suburbanites emerge from their respective stations dragging their feet in a hurry with shaking and disheveled heads, sweating through their misbuttoned shirts while coffee splashed onto their burning hands. Despite their irritated urgency, some of them do stop to say hello or even drop a quarter or two of the change they got from that half-spilt coffee. I smile back and say “thank you, have a great day”. And I think they do, despite the hustle of it all. Even if they didn’t, I hoped my greeting could brighten their days if just a little. It was all part of the ecosystem. I’ve even started to incorporate a “god bless” or two. I’m not sure any of it makes a difference, but I’d like to think it does.
There are the yuppies who make sure their bank accounts run in the single digits as if their lives depend on it. They’re out of town most weekends, whether it’s off to ski at a five-star resort in Vale or eat a slightly more authentic spaghetti along the Amalfi Coast. And if they aren’t out of town they’ll be in some exclusive VIP club with bottle service starting at ten thousand per table. But even the yuppies serve a purpose in the food chain, only this time quite literally. When they strut back to Murray Hill with a new girl on their arms after a late night out, I can always score a slice or two leaking from their dangling pizza boxes. The folks in the clouds pay the folks in the suburbs, the folks in the suburbs give a coin or two to us and serve as eventual role models for the yuppies, and the yuppies, whether intentionally or not, provide a good amount of my food.
Then there are the sheltered homeless. I think anyone who’s lived in the Big Apple at any point in their lives understand just what I mean. Most of these folks are straight out of college, or started a family earlier than they might have dreamed, but they are all only on the brink of joining me in sleeping bags on the streets. The sheltered homeless spend a good amount of their time teetering on the edge of meltdown just for the pleasure of living in the presence of grandeur from their 14th story shoeboxes. They work for far less than their college degrees warrant, but it’s “all about the experience”, right? Ed and I would always joke that the only difference between us and them is elevation. But just like the suburbanites, the sheltered homeless are the generous type. Something about how closely our lifestyles align forces them to understand us to a degree. Perhaps they give for the hope that someone would do the same for them once they inevitably joined us. The folks in the clouds pay those in the suburbs and who’d give a coin or two to us and mentorship to the yuppies who’d drop the pizza, and the sheltered homeless who give the bulk of our change out of a relatable fear.
Then there’s folks like Ed and me. We range anywhere between those who are actually insane to those who are just down on our luck. Either way, we all end up in the same place – on the streets below a thriving city. We’re the scum of the street, the thorn in every politicians’ side, the rats of the night, the dangers for the children – you name it. We’re not wanted and we know it very well. But like I said, I’m not here on my own accord. I have a few friends like stumpy Steve that love every minute of it, that thrive on the lifestyle. He hangs out on Wall Street and mocks the tuxedos walking by for working hundred-hour weeks. But not me – I’d snap up one of those jobs in a second if I could land one.
Anyone who doesn’t want us around probably doesn’t know how crucial a role we play in their concrete ecosystem. On top of making the more fortunate feel better about their charitable coin drops in my tin can, we probably help keep the city clean more than the cleaning crews in a way. Ed and I would wake up early each day, usually from hunger pains, and start our search for any plastic or Styrofoam cups along our route. He and I would start with our two shopping carts on the Upper West Side, sometimes as early as 6am. Then, street by street, we’d make our way down to Greenwich, then Soho, eventually ending up somewhere around Tribeca. If we went any further south, Ed would get worried we wouldn’t make it back to the hotels and shelters by nightfall. You didn’t want to be out after the sun went down. That’s another thing I learned too late.
If you were out, you’d run into the final tier of the ecosystem. If you’ve ever so much as visited New York or I’d imagine any city for that matter, you’ve probably seen most of the folks I’ve mentioned already. You’ve seen the cloud dwellers, the suburbanites, the yuppies, the sheltered homeless, the unsheltered homeless – but I’d put my house if I had one on you not seeing them. They don’t reveal themselves to the average visitor or even resident of the city, but they aren’t shy around us. It’s like they know our word won’t be taken seriously. Like I said – everyone thinks we’re nuts. And after a few nights around them, I think I understand why.
Starting my life as a self-proclaimed street rat came with its fair share of fears. How would I eat? What would I eat? Where would I sleep? What would I do in the winter? If I died, would anyone care? What if I got sick? There was no way I could afford a doctor. But those fears all dissolved like the embers of a smothered fire the first time I saw…them.
Ed and I were out late one night collecting recyclables deep into the south side of Manhattan near Battery Park. We even passed stumpy Steve on the way and gave him a nod. He caught a glimpse of us with his good eye and tried to wave from his wheelchair, his sides buckling in laughter at the sight of passing suits. When I saw Steve flash his rotting and scattered teeth, I couldn’t help but join in on the laughter. Seeing Steve was a bright blip in an otherwise horrifying evening.
It wasn’t Ed’s fault. He was the one begging to turn back. He knew what dangers waited beyond the sunset. “Ed, it’s fine, we don’t have to go back just yet. We could just cover a couple more streets. We’d still make it back before sunset. Sun doesn’t go down ‘til 8:30, we’ll be fine.”
“No, man I don’t wanna do it. We’re turning around,” he whined back, already trying to point his shopping cart north.
“Oh come on, where do you have to be? You busy tonight? You’re homeless for god sake, of course you don’t. I did the math and if we pick up another fifty-six bottles we could get a nice round –”
“Will you shut up about the math? I said I don’t wanna.”
“Why not? What’s the rush?”
“I told you, folk like us can’t be out past sunset. No no no no no…” he trailed off into a wheezing cough. When he was done, his maligned jaws snapped back together on his shaking head.
“Folk like us? What’s going to happen, we get mugged? Don’t be ridiculous, other than a couple shopping carts full of cans we’re not worth the hassle.”
“It’s not the cans, it’s not the muggers, it’s not the…if I told you, kid, you wouldn’t believe me.” He would call me kid from the moment I met him, though I’m sure he was at least a few years younger than me. “I know you think I’m crazy, I ain’t got no qualms about it. But you’d think I’m just as kooky as Hank. I don’t know if I can bare that. You’ll figure it out yourself, but you gotta trust me for now.” There was a certain darkness about his expression and tone. Whatever he was going on about was genuine fear, and no number of cans would have convinced him otherwise. I could feel his fear, but I refused to acknowledge it. All for a few extra bucks to buy myself that suit I was saving up for.
“Alright then just one more street. Glad we could come to a deal,” I insisted.
“Goddamn it, not one more street, not one – not one more corner. We don’t got time for it.”
“Half a street?”
Ed sighed and grunted with a shaky, charred throat. “Alright, alright, fine. Christ almighty kid. But if something happens out here it’s on you. Goddamn it, roping me into this. Remind me to never go canning with you again. You’re gonna be the death of me one of these days.”
I smiled. I wanted to thank him, but I knew he wasn’t the type to accept that. Ed and I hadn’t known each other long, but I just assumed his protests were nothing more than a facet of his general stubbornness. I didn’t know about them.
Sure, I’d heard rumors around town – rumors of guys getting walked off into nowhere with a group of 4 faceless men. It sounded like folklore to me, just another mind trick concocted in a vat of booze and psychedelics by a mentally fragile population. Like I said, I thought they were all crazy. Everyone is crazy until you experience the same horrors they have.
We walked that extra half street with Ed grunting all the way. He kept glancing up at the sky, watching the sun’s every move as if it was about to pull a gun on him. “We best be getting back now,” he mumbled as his eyes darted. “It’s not worth whatever your math tells you, they’ll be cans tomorrow.”
“Would you relax,” I snapped. “I appreciate you coming but not if you’re planning on bitching the whole way.”
He chuckled nervously, then sputtered into another coughing spree. “Don’t believe it ‘til you see it, do you? Well you will. We all do.”
I shook my head, trying to shake off Ed’s eerie warnings. But as the sun crept lower towards the horizon, his restlessness became increasingly contagious. I picked up a can while Ed spun back and forth as if he’d lost his dog. “Alright Ed, we can head back now. Thanks for indulging me.”
Ed was panting now like a bear caught in a trap. I’d never seen his face so pale. “It’s too late. It’s too late. I shouldn’t have agreed to another street. We’ll never make it back in time.”
“Relax, Ed. We can walk quickly if it makes you feel any better.”
His head vehemently shook and his eyes finally met mine. They were usually a pale green, but one was pink, almost certainly infected. “It’s too late, kid. We won’t even make it to the Traveler’s in time. It’s probably full tonight anyway. All we can do now is pray it won’t be us.”
“We’ll find a shelter, Ed it’s alright.” I rolled my eyes, still not buying his conspiracy theories. The sun was grazing the horizon now. Sweat brewed upon Ed’s brow. He parted his mud-caked hair off his forehead. He was right – I would have to see it to believe it. I just wish I didn’t.
He was right about the shelters too. We tried the place on Lafayette Street, but they’d just hit capacity three or four people before us. Just waiting on that line ate up thirty minutes or so – thirty minutes we couldn’t spare. By the time we made it back outside, the sun was halfway beneath the horizon. You could hardly see it through the surrounding buildings. It ominously slumped lower with each passing minute, along with our hopes of finding a place before nightfall.
After the one on Lafayette, we went to a place on the east side of 2nd, but a woman was in the middle of locking the doors. All she could seem to do was shake her head and say “sorry”. I thought Ed was about to break down in tears. The door shut and the lock clicked. As the woman turned her back to us, Ed collapsed into a squat. “God damnit. Oh fuck,” he wailed on, repeating it over and over.
I grabbed his shoulder and tried to hoist him back to his feet, but he didn’t budge. “It’s fine, Ed. We’ll figure it out. We just gotta stick together and it’ll be fine.” But he didn’t stop. I’d never seen such desperation in such a resolute man. “Come on, Ed. Stick with me.”
An unnerving quiet hung all around us. Aside from us, the streets had all but cleared out. Not a soul dared to stand with us. Ed wailed on and on. I wasn’t sure he’d ever stop.
“Would you shut the hell up,” an Italian man yelled from above. I looked up to catch a glimpse of his stained wife-beater stretched tightly around his plump torso, leaning from the fire escape.
I gave him half a nod, but he just shook his head and mutedly snorted as he made his way back into the window. Ed quieted down, but nothing about his demeanor did. In fact, it only got worse. He began to rock back and forth in his squatting position, not even gifting me a glimpse.
Suddenly his head shot up, eyes wide as an owl’s and his underbite jaw clenched under his gray scruff. I followed his gaze forward to see what had gotten him so quickly focused. And that was when I first saw them.
Half way down the street beneath a sputtering light, 4 men were just…standing there. I couldn’t see them well from so far away, but I knew it was them – the one’s I’d heard so much about. They all wore black, buttoned-up blazers with form-fitting, matching trousers. The 4 men stood side-by-side, slightly staggered and all looking straight ahead at Ed and I. But that was all they were doing: just standing there.
Ed tried to get up, but stumbled on his way and fell flat on his back. “That’s them, kid. That’s them.” He kicked at the floor with his heels trying again to stand, but flailing instead. He pointed frantically with one arm. “We gotta get out of here. We gotta run now.”
I tried to will myself into turning and running, but I couldn’t. My feet planted to the sidewalk more stiffly than the Empire State Building. I knew I had to run, but something about them was painfully mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes away from them. I noticed Ed stopped trying to stand eventually. He was even more entranced than I was.
Ed finally made his way to his feet after he calmed down, but he still didn’t bolt like I might have expected. His cries and moans had all but vanished. Instead he nearly drooled at the sight of them. He staggered past the shopping cart, his jacket grazing it along the way. Its loose wheels spun and flopped as the full cart wiggled its way towards the road with the cans clanging against each other all the way. “Ed,” I whispered. “Ed, what are you doing.”
He didn’t answer. He just kept walking towards them. Step by step, he inched nearer to those four men. I finally managed to panic like I knew I should, unearth my feet and reach out to grab Ed. I violently clawed onto his arm. “Ed, stop. What are you doing?” I pulled hard on him, but he remained stoic in his hypnotic journey. I tugged and yanked, even tried using both hands. But he kept going – inching closer. “Ed come on, snap out of it. What the hell is this?”
I looked ahead at the four suited men who were much closer now. And that’s when I saw what kept the bums up at night, what had them scattering to shelters at the sight of a setting sun. The four men…their faces were…missing.
The street lamp continued flickering above them, only revealing their shapes every other second. As we were only ten feet away now, I could fully make out their full forms. Instead of faces, only lights and shadows defined any shape to where their faces should be. Everything was normal about them other than their faceless heads. In place of their faces seemed to be some kind of bright material, like a shapely fabric stretched over an eggplant. They still remained in place with as much motion as they had faces – none.
I was too scared to hold on to Ed, too weakened by the sight. I let go. He kept walking closer, his tattered shoes shuffled against the sidewalk. He groaned a monotone noise and never stopped, not even for a breath. “Ed,” I whispered, but it was all I could muster. I didn’t want to anger the beings. I was frightened at the prospect of taking away their prize. I was too paralyzed to fight back for my friend.
He finally reached them. His feet clicked to a stop. He stood with his back hunched and shoulders slouched forward, head swaying upon his limp neck. Two of the four beings lifted their heads. Though they had no eyes and no faces at all, I could feel them staring at me. I turned my head to fight it. I wouldn’t go with them. But now I know it was only one at a time. They would have never taken Ed and I together.
Ed began shuffling again, moving past them. They turned around and let him lead the way to nowhere. Where they trudged off to, I’ll never know. But what I do know – I’ve never seen Ed again. I don’t know what scared me more, the fact the four faceless men took my friend right in front of my eyes, or the willingness he displayed to go with them.
I ended up using the money from all those cans to buy myself time in the internet café to write this account. After seeing what I did, nothing truly matters in the world other than saving anyone I can from the faceless beings. I never stayed out past seven anymore in the summer, four in the winter. I wouldn’t dare be caught in their sights again. No matter how much I fight it, I know one day it will be me. If I don’t get off these streets, one day I too will walk to nowhere with the faceless men.
There’s a new guy that hangs out with us, Keller. He’s a former sheltered homeless just like most of us. I actually recognized him from his days in an ill-fitting suit. I’ve tried to warn Keller about the beings but he’s just like I was: doesn’t believe a word of it. And why would you? Why would anyone believe some alcoholic homeless man going off about a faceless being? But he’ll have to see it to believe it. They always do. Until then, I’ll never go canning with him. He will be the death of someone, but not me. When Keller finally does get caught out on the streets late at night…they’ll be waiting.
This is really good, Lawson. Have you considered getting your stories narrated? I’m currently offering free services on select projects, and I’d really love to give yours a try. You can visit my site (dariusmarley.wordpress.com) to hear what I sound like. Any questions, just ask!
Hey Darius. Thanks for your reply! I’m glad you liked the story. Feel free to narrate the story whenever you’d like. If you tell me when you post it I can share on twitter to get some extra listeners. Your narrations sound great!
Thanks very much for the kind words, Lawson. I’ll get to work on this and send you a link to an MP3 audio track, which you’ll be able to download and use any way you like. After a lousy 2020, I’m definitely all about doing creative collabs for mutual self-promotion these days!