On Watching Movies at the Homeless Shelter

On Watching Movies at the Homeless Shelter
Steve MacFarlane

Emerson said “all the world loves a lover,” and sometimes, it cuts both ways.

The last time I fell in love, it was 2012: I found myself feeling uncharacteristically quixotic, and the object of my affection had to leave the States, future uncertain, due to visa issues. Anticipating the worst, I started asking around for a place to dump my surplus magnanimity, and a friend hipped me to a men’s homeless shelter on the Upper East Side that needed unskilled volunteers - a kind of hall-monitor setup, two to three nights a month, 6:30pm to 6:30am.

Via bus, the men arrive at the church basement, typically a dozen or so of them, registered under the purview of a certain Organization (name withheld) whose website, as of this writing, hasn’t been updated since 2003. This Organization is a nonprofit, but operates akin to what Hillary Clinton called a “public-private partnership”: enrollees surrender their Social Security and/or Welfare monies to the Organization, who then doles them back out in careful increments, providing counseling to help enrollees get on track to find jobs (and, eventually, apartments) in return for a share of the money. (It must be noted that the Organization gets paid even when these programs don’t come to term.)

But over the last five years I’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of these men give the same spiel, sometimes verbatim, wherein the Organization sounds a little more like voluntary imprisonment: the “drop-in center” in Midtown is open 24 hours a day with no bedding (unless you count folding chairs) or food (unless you count instant coffee). Enrollees are forbidden from bringing their own food or drinks (because, jealousy) and the TV is always blaring. Bags are searched upon exit and entry. Drug testing abounds, as does surreptitious drunkenness. The church basement where I volunteer is one of a handful of shelters in the Organization’s network; the men don’t know which one they’re staying at until the bus has made its stop.

Between sign-in (7-ish) and lights out (10pm) there’s time for guests to make a quick trip to the store, a smoke break, and…. a movie. The church has an extensive collection of DVDs - pieced together by bygone guests, volunteers, sidewalk finds and blind donations - that leans, in this sometime film critic’s opinion, on the machismo. There’s Raging Bull and Casino, Crank and Crank II: High Voltage, Bad Boys and Bad Boys 2, Underworld and Resident Evil, Knocked Up and Superbad, Boyz-N-Da-Hood, Borat, Hot Fuzz, Reign of Fire, Edge of Darkness, Tango & Cash, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Dark Knight, The Professionals - starring Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster - American Gangster, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, J.D.’s Revenge, Armored… you get the idea. Sometimes a guest brings movies from the New York Public Library; sometimes a guest brings a Chinatown bootleg of the latest billion-dollar superhero blockbuster; sometimes the bootleg proves a dud. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s mildly devastating.

To my mind, any brush with poverty risks exposing the beholder to his or her own privilege; this could be why so many New Yorkers seem convinced it’s a survival tactic to proceed as though the guy asking for change on the train or the sidewalk doesn’t even exist. On one of my early nights I brought a DVD of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies - a John Dillinger action epic that doubles, per Mann’s signature aesthetic (beloved by my fellow critics, shrugged off by the ticket-buying public every single time) like an extended demo in the breathtaking possibilities of handheld digital video - and found the guys a rapt audience. After that, I presumed I’d keep bringing movies, custom-curating these screenings into a forcible little education on <kisses fingers> chi-ne-ma. I was mercifully disabused: one of the guests brought a NYPL copy of Wild Things, overruling my choice (Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor). During the notorious swimming pool scene, the sight of a topless Denise Richards brought one of the guys to literal tears: “She’s so fuckin’ beautiful, man - I mean, just look at her!”

As the Irish film critic Mark Cousins is fond of saying, “we had faces then…”

We watched the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks (funnier than I expected) and Liam Neeson in Taken (also funnier than I expected) between slices of 7-Eleven pizza, bought with EBT. Once we watched a bootleg cam version of World War Z, as it was still in theaters; I had read that the film’s ending was rewritten and re-shot, but a few inserts from the original remained - brief flash-forwards of the en masse human uprising, flooding abandoned shopping malls and baseball fields, Paramount trying to wring some kind of return from their abandoned narrative strategy.

With the few extra layers of glass adding an apocalyptic haze, it looked like an avant-garde film; one of the guests, who had been snoring loudly during the film’s quieter passages, woke with a gasp and chortled, “that’s gonna happen anyway, zombies or no zombies.” There was a screening of Yuen Woo-Ping’s martial arts classic Drunken Master, which prompted a Vietnam vet to recount the time he had to dig leeches out of his and his buddy’s legs with a rusty combat knife (“And now I’m homeless. It’s your world, kid!”), and Neil LaBute’s underrated 2008 thriller Lakeview Terrace - sparking a heated discussion on how it’s Never Really Just About Racism. There was the time a DVD surfaced of John Singleton’s 1993 road romance Poetic Justice - starring Tupac and Janet Jackson, at the peak of their respective powers - and only one of the guests stuck around for the whole thing. When the end credits rolled, we made furtive eye contact, and he quietly told me “Good movie." I nodded before turning out the lights.

After working these shifts and watching these movies for half a decade, I realized at some point I had learned next to nothing. It's always easy to make assumptions, and even easier to guess what the guests don’t want: you haven’t lived until a sixty-something African-American gentleman has told you he’s voting for Donald Trump because “trickle-down didn’t get a fair shot… when the big guys get paid, the little guys get paid too.”

When the apartment building next door donated a massive spread of crudites and hummus, it sat in the shelter fridge for the better part of a week. Under no allusions (or, in select wrenching cases, nothing but allusions), the guys want little more than to choose their own meals, bring their own movies, charge their phones, maintain a little distance between one fold-out bed and the next, get an uninterrupted night’s sleep and a wake-up in time for the morning bus. (And even these have, given enough time, proven challenging enough.) 

I’m at the shelter right now. Everything reeks of eucalyptus-scent floor cleaner. The guys are on their fold-outs, one face illuminated at a time by hand-me-down cellphones. There’s a Prisoners’ Dilemma aspect to the whole deal: none of them ever imagined themselves in this situation, and/but the stability on offer is a fragile blessing - when the shelter’s supplies are low, a prison-yard mentality imposes itself with every last sugar packet and cigarette drag. All it takes is one on-edge guest to remind the others how little they wanted to end up here. I’ve seen hundreds of them come and go, and I can count on one hand the number who, to my knowledge, successfully executed the Organization’s full rigamarole; far more have gone AWOL, been kicked out for losing their tempers or breaking protocol, succumbed to drug problems or toxic relationships, skipped town, started new jobs and/or withdrawn from the program in one fell swoop.

Even if it's been the same all along, lately I'm feeling like my role as volunteer has shrunken and expanded at once. I need the dexterity to respond to their requests, the presence of mind to be available - often so the guys can comfortably phase me, a white face bearing so much good fortune and suburban entitlement, out. (In not a few cases, carrying the least life experience of anybody in the room has made for uneasy equilibrium.) Because some semblance of choice - a word beloved by architects of class warfare in the last century, the curation of one’s own reality in this one - is, as freedoms go, near-inviolable. Transformers: Era of Extinction is on the TV; nobody’s watching, but I won't be the one to turn it off.

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