Homeless for Christmas

How does it feel to be without a home? To be on your own? Like a complete unknown? It probably feels something like what these people must feel, these people who are living in a tent alongside the Raritan River in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on a wooded embankment in the shadow of Route 18.

I first spotted the tent about a week ago — it’s blue, quonset-style, probably meant to fit two people. Today I saw a man walk out of the tent and sit down on a rock. Last week I think I saw three people walk out of the tent and up a tramped-down trail leading to the highway — perhaps they were heading to a nearby food pantry across the road.

Are there fewer homeless people than there were a decade or so ago? I doubt it. The economy’s worse, jobs are fewer, welfare benefits have been cut, and the poor and needy are poorer and more needy.

When I was living recently in Lowell, Massachusetts, I was struck by how many homeless people walked the streets or nodded off in downtown doorways, smacked out on crack. They were everywhere, night and day, pushing shopping carts containing  their earthly possessions, gathering bottles and cans to redeem for cash at recycling depots, congregating outside a nearby shelter, and poking through restaurant dumpsters looking for food. They were  thin, lost, beaten down, often drugged or drunk, wearing layers of second-hand clothing, their sad eyes fixed straight ahead or downcast, oblivious to my gaze.

In New Jersey, I think, the homeless are less ubiquitous.  I’ll sometimes see homeless people on the streets of New Brunswick. Now, of course, I know of the tent-dwellers, and I know that for years there has been a rude encampment of homeless people who live a little farther up the river, on the eastern shore near the bridge that carries the old Lincoln Highway over the Raritan, and I’ve seen other homeless who congregate in a tunnel beneath the approach to that same bridge.

On a cold day in Manhattan last week, a homeless man peeked out through an opening in plastic sheets he had tied to a fence to create a rough lean-to on the sidewalk near the Flatiron Building.

And when I drive around the old, poorer sections of Yonkers, New York, the part of the city where I grew up , everywhere I look in my old neighbhorhoods, I see poverty and fear and blank looks in bloodshot eyes.

I guess the idea of home — having one, not having one — is more on my mind as Christmas nears. I’ve many warm memories of Christmases past in places I’ve called home — and of the Christmas that dwells in my dreams and rests safely in the haven of my heart.

And so I am thinking now of a rude manger, and of a brilliant star, and of that blue tent pitched by the riverside in the shadow of the highway. May the highway’s hum give way to silent night. May the brightest star shine upon that blue tent and those who dwell within it. May that star’s light be a soft healing light. May those without a home tonight be safe and warm. May they sleep in heavenly peace.

Rain

Two photos I took along the Merrimack River in Lowell, Mass., as a dark storm approached at about 9 in the morning….and the song I thought of as I dashed into my car and took shelter from the deluge.

 

The haiku bird

In one part of my life there was a blue heron, which now soars silently through my mind, like a dream without sounds, a wordless vision, just power and grace and surprise bordering on miraculous: how could such a creature, so brilliantly beautiful yet so mindlessly violent, exist in such a place as a small and peaceful New England pond?  I saw that heron only once, maybe twice. I  have a beautiful photo of the bird, taken as it stepped with stealth through the shallows then stood stock-still in the grasses. The photo has the look of an old National Geographic Kodachrome of a Japanese mediation garden. The bird itself looks somehow like a haiku.

Lately, though, the wonder of seeing the bird seems less rare. I’ve recently seen other blue herons flying and landing along the banks of the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts. Several times I’ve watched herons strut jerkily on their spindly legs along the trash-strewn weedy banks of the old industrial canals in Lowell, Mass., then suddenly soar into the sky and wing westward toward the  river.

Two days ago, I looked out the window of my apartment in one of Lowell’s retrofitted  old mills  — and, lo and behold, there was a heron sitting quietly and basking in the morning sun (or perhaps on the lookout for a fish breakfast). Above is the  grainy photo I took with my iPhone as the heron sat on some sort of boom or barrier that floats in the canal.

The heron soon flew away, leaving behind thoughts of fleeting flashing beauty, of thin and flimsy dreams, of miracles debunked, of dreams with no sounds and of visions beyond speaking, of love and life which fly away like herons heading home to the river.

Big blue heron flies/then alights by the river/Dried-up dreams adrift

It’s nearly Spring –“Rip” ends his winter slumber

Set your alarm clocks for Thursday, March 22, at 7 p.m.

After slipping into some sort of slumber since I did a reading and book-signing in January at the public library in Tarrytown, N.Y., hometown of Washington Irving himself, “Rip” and its author will be back in “circulation” this week at the Pollard Memorial Library, 401 Merrimack Street,  in Lowell, Mass.

The free event begins at 7 and should last until about 8 p.m. I’ll talk a bit about my longtime affection for Washington Irving’s writing, I’ll chat a little about how I came to write my modern-day parody of “Rip Van Winkle,” I’ll read sample chapters from the book, I’ll take questions from the audience, and I’ll sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase at the event. (I might also have something to say about Lowell native Jack Kerouac — his presence still permeates this gritty city, which just spent a couple of weeks celebrating what would have been the great writer’s 90th birthday).

I hope you’ll try to make it — that you’ll bring a friend (or friends) — and that you’ll help spread the word by passing this around to anyone and everyone within range of Lowell who you think might enjoy the book and the reading.

Here’s what the library’s website saying about the event:

The Pollard is excited to welcome local author Nicholas DiGiovanni to read from his novella “Rip”. Imagine Washington Irving sitting down for a friendly drink and spinning yarns with Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, and you’ll get an idea of the flavor of “Rip,” DiGiovanni’s satirical retelling of Irving’s venerable story about ne’er-do-well Rip van Winkle. DiGiovanni brings Rip van Winkle into the Sixties, finds him gainful employment as a toll-taker on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and makes his long suffering wife a charter member in the feminist movement just starting to sweep the country. There’s a lot more packed into this story, but you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Suffice to say that once you’re done, you’ll understand why novelist Christian Bauman (In Hoboken, The Ice Beneath You) calls DiGiovanni “a master storyteller.” So come on down to this free reading and get your copy of Rip signed by the author.

Here are directions to the library:

Take I-95 or Route 3 to the Lowell Connector. Take exit 5B to merge onto 3A N/Thorndike Street. Continue on Thorndike Street as it changes to Dutton Street. Turn left onto Market St. Turn right on Cardinal O’Connell Parkway. Turn left onto Merrimack Street. Library will be on the right—a large granite building with “Memorial Hall” etched in the side. The library is next door to City Hall, another large granite building with a clock tower.

Here’s information about parking (note that if you parked in a metered space outside the library, you don’t have to pay after 6 p.m.):

The library has a free 2-hour parking lot on the corner of Moody and Colburn St. To access this lot, head north up Merrimack Street past the Library, turn right onto Cabot Street. Then turn right onto Moody Street. Follow Moody Street all the way back down to the library. The lot is on the corner as Moody turns onto Colburn Street (across from the Lowell Fire Station). There is handicapped parking on Merrimack Street in front of the library. There is also on-street metered/kiosk parking available around the library. Meter/kiosk parking fees are in effect 8am-6pm Monday-Saturday.

The meeting room where I’ll be reading is on the Moody Street/Coburn Street side of the building, the entrance right across the street from the library parking lot. If you enter through the front door, just head to the main desk and they’ll direct you to where I’m reading.

Thanks! I’ll be hoping to see a lot of friends, old and new, at Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library on Thursday evening!

I capture the castle!

Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Mass. I'll be doing a reading and book-signing there on March 22 at 7 p.m.

Well, not really. It isn’t really a castle. I haven’t captured anything, except (I hope) your attention. And that phrase has just been on my mind because of several recent conversations about the classic book of that name by British author Dodie Smith.

In any event, captured castle or not, I love this building — and I’ve just been invited to do a “Rip” reading and book-signing there!

Please spread the word:

Author Nicholas DiGiovanni will read from his novella “Rip,” a modern-day parody of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” on Thursday, March 22, from 7 to 8 p.m., at the Pollard Memorial Library, 401 Merrimack St., Lowell, Mass., Admission is free. The author will discuss how he came to write his spoof on Irving’s tale. After reading excerpts from the book, he will answer audience questions and sign copies of the book.