The old New York airport was once called Idlewild, a pastoral welcome to the gate of a zoological garden of free-ranging species. Or so it seemed to say before the names were changed to those of politicians, those who won. Kennedy Airport, international arrival to our hysterical, battered and battering, pot-holed, bankrupt metropolis. A spectacular warehouse this city is; folk from anywhere, especially from those sunny sovereignties to the south of us, coming to peer out of blackened windows, each one in his shelter of sorts.
In 1879 a curious urban structure called the ‘dumb-bell tenement’ won a prize as the most imaginative and useful design for the hordes seeking shelter. Windows looked out upon a rubbish-strewn courtyard, black and empty, giving neither light nor air but surely an improvement on something not previously thought of. Shelter, beautiful word, like dwelling. ‘Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling.’ But utter not the word shelter just now, here where it has acquired or grown a scrofulous hide.
Will you not come with me to the Shelter on this icy evening, dear, old homeless one, stuffed into your bag of rags and surrounded by upstanding pieces of cardboard, making as it were a sort of private room on the freeze of concrete near a corner or before a store front? No, you f—ing little, rat-faced volunteer on vacation from the country club of Wellesley College or piling up credit at the Fordham School of Social Work. I’ll die before I’ll take my bag upon bag of nameless litter, my mangy head, my own, my leprous legs, purple, scabbed and swollen, my numbed, crooked fingers, myself, to the City Shelter, or flop house, whatever you call it.