Homeless for the Holidays
In his unfinished memoir Toby van Buren imagines his car was dented in a collision with Jesus. It’s the holiday season of ’95, and Toby is living in his Buick Skyhawk coupe, mostly at the rest stop off Exit 52 of the Long Island Expressway. He’d lost his World Trade Center job with $5,000 in the bank. Toby spent most of his savings on gas—enough to run the car every once in awhile for heat—and movie tickets. That Christmas, he listened to the St. Patrick’s Cathedral services on his car radio, had breakfast at the Yonkers Raceway Diner, and saw Jumanji.
The story ends badly, and with gratitude. The Skyhawk’s radiator breaks, and Toby is arrested with a DUI. On his way to the alcohol testing van, he wonders what will happen to his guardian angel of a car. He fares her well and thanks her for getting him through the winter.
Ten years later, Toby had quit drinking and gotten Section 8 housing. At age 70, he was writing My Homeless Experience, a memoir of his five years living in cars and cardboard boxes, going to the movies and other public places. “All my five homeless years, I tried dealing with it that way—at the libraries, atriums, etc.,” Toby writes, “keeping my brain going, when all else wasn’t, particularly!”
I met Toby at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen Writers’ Workshop in Chelsea. Every spring, soup kitchen guests and volunteers gather around a table in the back of the church after lunch to write. Instructors give prompts—“someone burning a wedding dress,” “my worst Christmas ever,”—and everybody does a free-write.
When I heard Toby’s Skyhawk story, I asked his permission to publish the piece in Killing the Buddha, which I co-edit. Toby agreed and gave an animated reading at one of our events in Brooklyn. We put him on our mailing list, and he put me on his. Toby could only get online for half an hour a day—his free allotment of internet time at the West Side Apple Store. He was writing voraciously, in half-hour fits of typing—standing, I imagine—a blurt of an orange jumpsuit in the silver-and-white sheen of the Apple Store. I received a barrage of mass emails from Toby every week. And I didn’t bother to open them until the subject line became “What has happened to Toby?”
I read the thread—between Toby’s friends and relatives, soup kitchen volunteers, and members of an artists’ group—to piece together what happened. He had a hospital band on his wrist when he went to visit a nephew in late October. A friend went to see Toby’s social worker, who confirmed that he was hospitalized after several strokes. He never showed up for his outpatient speech-therapy sessions and hadn’t been back to his apartment since October 21st.
Toby’s friends have different speculations as to why he left what had resembled a stable life. Maybe, since the strokes, it’s too painful and frustrating for him to try to communicate with people he knows. Maybe the last straw was the bite on his right eyelid, from the bed bugs that infest his Section 8 apartment: “I have no sleep, the itch,” he writes in one of the last mass emails before he disappeared. “BACK TO THE STREETS, where there ARE no bed bugs!”
Toby’s friends are asking themselves a hard question: whether to try and get him back into his apartment, or to let him live as he chooses. As his cousin Ken put it, “[T]o find something wrong with this Toby version of life and then do the right thing and fix something, or to allow him his graceful unfolding.” Ken remembers Toby as a great chronicler of the family, who did amazing drawings of cars, who remembered everyone’s birthday, who made people uncomfortable “his loud and often inappropriate talk or laughter” at family gatherings, Ken writes. “He was one of us and not one of us.”
Ken says Toby “caused [his] parents pretty exquisite pain when he could not really receive what they had to offer.” Sometimes he would sleep in his Buick Skyhawk in their driveway. When they tried to check him into a hospital, he raged and refused to go. “Toby will always live his story with fierce independence,” Ken writes. “I believe he will continue to live—and die—his way and in his own time.”
But one friend of Toby, Chris, is determined to get him off the streets. Chris has seen Toby get sober with ARTS—Artists Recovering through the Twelve Steps. He’s seen Toby overcome his fear of performing, dazzling crowds with his impersonation of Marilyn Monroe. Chris is rallying people to send holiday and get-well cards to Toby’s P.O. Box. Imagine Toby receiving “an avalanche of cards,” Chris urges us on the mass email list. Imagine the “positive psychological impact” of being able to read and touch written words of love for a man who believes no one cares about him.
I sent a card with an airborne elephant on the front and a note inside, thanking Toby for contributing his Skyhawk story to Killing the Buddha. And I sent a copy of Nathalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, with a bookmark on the page that says: “This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”
I don’t know if Toby can carry his diner-booth details anymore. So I read through his old emails for the wondrous, troubling particulars of the blizzard of ’96, the pumpkin shortage of 2009. In one dispatch whose subject line is “Thanksgiving for Outcasts,” Toby rides a yellow school bus to the White Plains annual Tuesday-before-Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, elderly, and disabled. High-school volunteers serve them unlimited turkey and cider in the Kol Ami Synagogue. There are helium balloons and an “Amazing Grace” sing-along, led by a former soap opera star. Toby took pictures “to remember and to show you here,” he writes, “how I indeed was not left out of this holiday celebration, as many do express concern for me—how I’ll make out, etc.—yet [do not extend] me an invitation.”
One Christmas Eve, Toby saw The Day the Earth Stood Still on a $7 senior-citizens ticket, and gave 50 cents for muscular dystrophy, before driving towards his brother’s house on Long Island. It was very windy, “beyond gale-force at times,” he writes, “and the rain was coming down in buckets.” He pulled over at a 7-Eleven and turned the radio on. He had an hour to kill; he’d told his nephew in an email that he would arrive at precisely midnight, leave a gold gift bag with holiday eggnog for the family, in exchange for homemade Christmas cookies he hoped they would leave on the doorstep. Toby made this unanswered email arrangement because he and his brother have an understanding: “We love each other—that I know,” he writes, “just that I don’t go inside the house—am not to—not as Christmases once were. I think it must be the stigma of my once having lived on the streets.”
Timing the gift drop-off at exactly midnight that Christmas Eve, Toby says he felt like Santa, “my car the sleigh, perhaps angels my reindeer, and the rain and wind combined a blizzard. I was imagining this Christmas tale, sort of making it happen. A lot of what we HAVE now is because of our ONCE IMAGINING THINGS.”
Toby’s Christmas tale continues, back at Exit 52, his holiday home, of sorts. Even though he had an apartment that year, he decided to wait out the storm at the rest stop, dozing and meditating in his car until Christmas morning. On his walk up Astor Avenue, he saw a “keeled-over Santa,” fallen flat on his belly in a yard. “Had he done too much last night?” Toby wonders, “had too many?” He took a picture.
A few months after his first stroke, Toby sent an update called “Stroke Progressing, I Mean Abating.” He had much of his speech back and a tingling feeling on the right side of his face. Mild Bell’s palsy. “And I thank God,” he writes:
“Last night I was at Bryant Park, a sudden thunderstorm arising, my taking refuge under one of their umbrellas. There was a pool of water on the table, as if a mini-lake, with trees reflecting on it, one big trunk. Overall, it looked like Earth, but flattened out a bit, like Jupiter at the poles. Jupiterlike Earth? I took a picture.”
In the same email, Toby tells of his plans for his father’s would-be 100th birthday. “I will visit cemeteries,” he writes, “get out photos I have with me, perform religious services at the gravestone, talk to all concerned—God certainly!” Maybe Toby will listen to a recording he made of him and his dad talking, “sitting in chairs on a St. Thomas beach—drunk on Heineken—the waters lapping the shoreline,” to a Caribbean version of “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”
In July, Toby sends out a lament against New York’s plan to gas 170,000 geese to reduce the threat of the birds colliding with planes. “Well, we should all know why this has failed,” he says, of the goose-extermination plan. “OK, I’ll spell in out—SIN.” Toby writes of all the time he’s spent watching the Canadian geese at the Hudson River Waterfront, “a three-month observation” of goslings: they swim in formation as their extraordinary wings develop, and then learn how to fly under the steadfast attention of their parents. “It’s wonderful, that feeling that I can still have, as if I too have just been born—AGAIN!”
Toby feels a kinship with the geese when he lies on the grass to rest from his long walks: “some of these birds walk nearly head to head to me, a sense of mutual respect and admiration. They’re not afraid of me, nor I of them.”
In August, Toby emails an official complaint letter, addressed to the manager-in-chief at the Apple Store on Fifth. Five minutes into one of his half-hour internet sessions, one of Apple’s geek squad told him to leave. “Maybe [my attire] that day was TOO LOUD for Apple’s tastes—too NEWMARK and LEWIS?” Toby writes. “I have Bell’s Palsy, and I HAD TROUBLE talking back.”
In September, Toby sends a dispatch of a dream:
“What World Trade Center!
“I’m there again—but I’m not, have a job but not. It’s a sea of endless cubicles—files, abandon—computers turned off. No one is around, yet I wonder if someone sees me.
“I look outside—no visual evidence—a stirring?
Suddenly then—NOTHING, just the occasional computer—working by itself. What happened? Where have they all gone—what happened to my father?”
Before losing his own memory, Toby wondered if his brother’s Alzheimer’s could be a foretaste of a world to come: “Maybe it’s like living in a dream; something must be going on inside my brother, just that he can no longer relate to the outside, to communicate with us … Maybe he’s in a wonderful world that could just be a lead-in to Heaven!”
I look back through Toby’s emails and notice all the lead-ins to heaven he sees. In the snow that filled Grandma Van’s grave as soon as she was buried. In the gust of blizzard wind that almost felled a tree and thrilled him that Christmas Eve he was sitting in his car at the 7-Eleven, waiting to play Santa on his brother’s doorstep.
Toby’s gift is a persistent, unkempt kind of poetry, way of happening on snowdrifts, a palsied mouth stammering to say these words matter: “I have a well like a stroke, rather it BELL.B. PATSY,” Toby writes in one of his last messages. “I that had a NOTHING, I paralysis or facial nerve. I’m CREAT[E] though. I can what’s. Can’s what I can.”
Tobie’s undying imagination hallowed my holidays that year. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I saw a man looking at broken street meters in Birmingham, Alabama. I offered to buy him something to eat. We went to Quiznos, ordered sandwiches and fountain drinks. I told him about a men’s shelter downtown: a good place, as far as I know, except they require you to do a “Bible-Based Recovery Program.” He said he’s never been addicted to alcohol or drugs. But he does have friends who’ve been on LSD and felt like they left their bodies.
After lunch we walked to the Y, where I hoped to find information about local soup kitchens—somewhere he could have Thanksgiving dinner. On the way, he asked what I’m studying. Religion, I told him. “Do you learn about past lives?” he asked. No, I told him. I’ve been focusing on Christianity. “Like going up when you die,” he said, half-asking, his eyes toward the streaks a plane made in the sky.
“Well, I want to believe in the resurrection of the body, but I don’t know,” I told him. “I do believe in heaven, though. What about you?”
“Some,” he said. “But it’s not paradise. It’s not like going to Hawaii. You see people you know, and they’re not that much different than they were here.”
We sat on the steps of the Y. He told me he’d died for six minutes, when his driver’s side window shattered in a collision with a truck. There was blood everywhere; the paramedics were calling the coroner.
“What was it like?” I asked.
“Not much different than this,” he told me, looking at the sunlit sidewalk. “Except there are no buildings around. Just open space and people you know.”
“Do you talk to them?” I asked.
“Some,” he said again. “It’s not much different than this.”
“And coming back?”
It’s like you’re sleeping, he told me. And you snap awake.
Toby wrote he was suddenly awoken at midnight one New Year’s Eve, reminded that God was with him. He had some eggnog, cheddar cheese, and Wheat Thins and didn’t turn on the TV: he says he “didn’t want to see any of the after the ball-drop celebrations.”
Toby’s holidays are fragile celebrations: Shards of light holding precarious life. His stories tell us the palsied parts of what he calls “this still-beautiful world.”
I imagine Toby’s heaven as a homecoming to his Buick Skyhawk—dented by that collision with Jesus of Christmaspast. His guardian angel has been recovered from a junkyard on Long Island. She’s got no hubcaps, but she flies alright, down the Long Island Expressway, to the movies. She honks her sleigh-bell horn, mindful of the goslings flying over Jupiterlike Earth.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.