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A Homeless City in the Woods


A pregnant woman named Cynthia wanders in and pounces on a stretchy denim jumpsuit (“Oh, I so want that. Oh, fuck yeah!”) before Tracy pushes a box of maternity clothes in her direction. In the box is the find of the night—a prenatal heart listener with the batteries still working—though a bag of purses also causes excitement. The women check them for forgotten cash before Cynthia selects a snakeskin clutch for her growing pile. How is she going to get all this to fit in her tent, she wonders.

Tracy laughs and shakes her head. “Nobody’s going to be allowed to go shopping with me anymore.”

At the end of October, the cold eases into a perfect Indian summer. The residents of Cedar Bridge mill around the picnic tables in T-shirts, grilling hamburgers, playing cards. It’s easy to forget that any day now, winter will be bearing down.

That thought has not escaped Tracy. Unlike Steve, she has no interest in sticking around Cedar Bridge any longer than necessary. Her criminal record makes it difficult to qualify for subsidized housing, and though she’s put in applications, she still can’t manage to get a job. Without a job, her prospects for getting an apartment are dim. Without an apartment, she can’t get an address, which she needs in order to receive a loan to attend beauty school. Mike has passed the drug test at Wal-Mart and is waiting on the background check, which he’s sure he will pass, but it’s been a few weeks since he’s heard anything. Tracy doesn’t want to spend the holidays in a tent, but she consoles herself by telling Mike that at least here she feels needed.

A lot has been happening at the camp. Three of the Mexicans disappeared, and everyone fears that they were picked up by Immigration. An older man named Aaron had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night because of fluid around his heart. Another pregnant couple moved in. Petey, one of the remaining Mexicans, learned that his mother had died, and so the camp pooled its money to help him get a rush passport and transportation back to Puebla for the funeral. The camp’s two Frankies, normally friendly and mild-mannered guys, caused a scene when Little Frankie made a pass at Big Frankie’s wife, Zenayda, at which point Big Frankie smashed him over the head with a half-empty beer bottle, leading to a trip to the emergency room and fifteen stitches. Cynthia asked Tracy to be the surrogate grandmother of her baby. Cynthia then fought with her boyfriend, Ellwood, and ran away for the night, threatening to have the baby aborted. And, in order to get away from Big Frankie, Little Frankie was the first of the residents to move into one of Steve’s sustainable tepees, which everyone else has decided is not worth the bother.

But the event that threatens most to destabilize the camp begins with a call to Steve late one afternoon. A woman from El Salvador had been fired from her job as a live-in maid when her employer became frustrated with her level of English. She has no papers, nowhere to go—and she has a 9-year-old son.

The residents of Cedar Bridge have often clashed with Steve on whether to accept newcomers, worried that his open-border policy will strain resources and cause problems in town. Technically speaking, Steve is no longer supposed to bring new people to the camp. The township recognizes Cedar Bridge to the extent that it collects its garbage, but the mayor has made it clear that he does not want the camp to grow. This is a compromise that Steve has often breached. “If somebody comes to me and doesn’t have a place to go, I’m going to give them a tent,” he says.

Rumors have been circulating through camp all fall that Lakewood will shut down—maybe even bulldoze—Cedar Bridge, making Steve’s willingness to accept a child seem almost careless. Mike speaks to him on behalf of the camp.

“For the most part, I think that’s pushing the limit. The first time you get a child down here, they’re gonna want to know how that child’s going to school, does that child have shots. If DYFS”—the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services—“comes down here with the sheriff’s department, you can hang this place up.”

“If we say we exhausted our options …” Steve says. “The only option this woman had was to be here.”

“No, no, no, Steve.”

“I’m not gonna have somebody wander the streets out there.”

“Okay, well, you know something? All you have to do is make that step and it’ll be your last with this.”


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