Midnight, the Bronx
For the past year, Nancy Quinn has lived on a long, narrow patch of dirt under a four-lane overpass in the South Bronx, a few feet from the Bronx River. To get there, she walks the length of the overpass, dodges two lanes of traffic, hops over a Jersey barrier, negotiates a steep hill of mud, and steps around a drooping chain-link fence. Her bed is an old box spring she found in the garbage, lined with a sleeping bag and a few comforters. She’s set up two wooden benches on either side of the bed, a plywood table where she eats, bins for her clothes, and a makeshift standing mirror. The river is her toilet. In warm weather, she washes in the river, too; otherwise, she uses a McDonald’s bathroom.
She wears clothes found in the garbage. Tonight, she’s got on a brown baseball cap with a Colombo Yogurt logo and a blue-and-white windbreaker. She’s 39 but looks older. Her hair is long, brown, and greasy, and her pale complexion is marred by a big bruise around her right eye. It’s a souvenir from a fight with someone she owed money. “I was getting something from a dealer, and he saw it and just punched me right in the eye. Broad daylight. I took it, and I walked away. I mean, what am I gonna do?”
It’s a cold night—we can see our breath—but under the overpass, Nancy’s warm. “I got, like, six blankets here,” she says, laughing and coughing at the same time. The river bubbles. The glow of a streetlamp shines on the water like moonlight. “The river’s peaceful to me,” she says. She’s been homeless now for almost four years, moving from place to place. She says she likes this spot the best, but as the night goes on, she talks about the sacrifices she’s made, the three children she rarely, if ever, sees—a teenager, a 4-year-old, and a 2-year-old. Talking about the children makes Nancy cry—long, low sobs.
Soon enough, though, she’s better. “I love to cry,” she says. It’s one of the reasons she won’t take Prozac. “When I’m on the mental meds, I don’t like the way I feel,” she says. “I’m not Nancy.”
This Nancy is a lifelong drug addict, a sexual-abuse victim, and a prostitute. For the past three years, she has awoken most days in the late afternoon with no money in her pocket. She says it’s safer to spend everything she has—you can’t get ripped off that way. She keeps a bottle of water ready to wash her face and brush her teeth. Once she’s cleaned up, she’ll comb the sidewalk outside searching for used cigarette butts—“floor models,” she calls them. “Nicotine is a bitch,” she says. “I’ve got to smoke some nicotine in me before I even try to make any money. Otherwise I’m a real crank. People don’t like me when I’m cranky.”
Then she’ll hit the stroll, up on Bryant Avenue. “I call myself a self-employed street vendor. My license is my HIV-negative paper. You know what I’m saying?” She charges $20 for blow jobs, $30 for sex, $40 for “half-and-half,” which means both. On a good night, she makes between $100 and $150. She spends most of what she earns on crack—$5 for nickel bags, $10 for dime bags. When she comes back to where she sleeps, the sun is usually coming up, and she’ll be “either high or wishing I was.” That’s when she likes to take a hit from her pipe and belt out “my rock and roll shit”: Guns N’ Roses, the Stones, Kiss. She’ll read for a few hours—Dean Koontz, the Bible, whatever’s around—until she’s wound down enough to pass out.
She has one or two friends—a guy she called T came by as we talked and gave her a cigarette when she asked for it—but most of the time, Nancy is alone. “I have no pimp,” she says, suddenly giggling. “You want to hear something bad? You want to know who my pimp is? My stem is my pimp. My crack pipe.”
Outreach workers from the Citizens Advice Bureau, a nonprofit group that keeps tabs on chronically homeless people, come by every few nights to check on Nancy. She enjoys the visits—they’re like social calls to her. But when they’ve offered her shelter, she’s refused. She knows that shelters typically require people to stop using, or at least enter a rehab program or get counseling. “The thing is, when a person wants to get clean, they have to get clean for themselves.”
Last year, however, something happened that started to make Nancy think about getting off the streets. Her oldest son, who’s now 14, reappeared in her life. For a time, Nancy had been hiding from everyone, but her ex-husband and mother-in-law had found her and reached out to her on his behalf, and Nancy finally agreed to see him. He’s been to her place under the overpass a number of times since. She talks about her son like any proud mother. “Oh, my son is gorgeous—a beautiful young man with a beautiful heart.”
But seeing him also reminds her of how far she’s fallen. “My mother-in-law came to me a few months ago and said, ‘Nancy, he’s turning out just like you.’ ” Now she’s crying. “Like, there was this scare with him. My ex got called to his school because my son decided to cut himself and write something like ‘Die’ in blood on the school wall. My son sometimes feels like nobody gives a damn about him. And that scares me.”
Three weeks after I first met Nancy, the outreach team convinced her to accept a free room in an apartment house about a half-mile from the underpass, as part of the new citywide shelter-first initiative. Nancy told me she was tired; she decided to give it a try. The night the outreach workers handed her the keys, Nancy was thrilled. She loved the electricity, the shower. “As soon as I had the keys, I stripped naked and lay down on the blanket. I pulled my book out, and I was lying there reading, and the next thing I knew, it was the middle of the night.”
But at 2:50 a.m. that same night, Nancy was found with half a bag of crack near 180th Street and Morris Park Avenue. She was arrested and charged with a class-A misdemeanor, her 39th arrest on record with the Bronx D.A.’s office. At her arraignment, she took a plea and was sent to Rikers Island for seven days.
I found Nancy again the day after she was released—but below the underpass, not at her new apartment. Since she’d left Rikers, Nancy hadn’t gone back to her new room at all. She’d spent that afternoon turning tricks on Bryant Avenue. We sat by the river together, eating McDonald’s, and I asked her why she came back here, under the bridge. Before she answered, she asked if she could take a break. Then she lit her pipe.
“I don’t want to smoke there,” she said. “I don’t want to bring this there. I don’t want to bring that shit to my home, to my new home, and screw everything up again. I don’t want to do that.”
Then Nancy was crying again. “The things that I’ve done for this stupid shit,” she said. “I’m leaving one home for another.”
But she knows she wants it both ways. She wants to move to start a new life, but not if it means giving up her old life. Here’s how it works, she says: She’ll go to the new apartment after she makes some money and buys some drugs and food. “I want to get nice and high, I need something to eat, and then I can go there and lie down.”