Bobby, at home everywhere, and nowhere


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An itinerant native son’s quest for permanence


Photos



  • Robert Martinez and his daughter, Lily. Photo courtesy of Robert Martinez




  • Robert Martinez during his Navy days. Photo courtesy of Robert Martinez




  • Bobby Martinez and daughter Lily. Photo courtesy of Robert Martinez




The complexities of building a China in a New York neighborhood never seemed to occur to anybody. It was that thing about New York — the thing that made everything believable and nothing too impossible or far-fetched. And in fact, the narrow roads running through downtown resembled the dark alleyways. And then there were the red-yellow lanterns, the cash-only restaurants, the chintzy replicas, the street vendors, the smell, the Mandarin.

Any definite boundary was hard to discern. People who lived down Mercer and Broadway could say they lived in Chinatown. It gave an address some solidity, implied community. It gave people a sense of belonging — even to those who lived at the homeless shelter that didn’t seem to fit in. And to belong is to survive in New York City.

Watching others suffer diminished your own suffering. Not being able to afford enough weed to make it through the week seemed less treacherous when you stumbled upon others searching for dealers acting like loan sharks. Outside the shelter, the customary catcalling and howling were norms; this was the traffickers’ way of announcing their arrival, showcasing control, marking territory.

Situations were tense, more complex than they looked peripherally. Money was tight. But the hardest thing was making it back by curfew. One minute late and you lose your bed, bound again to look for a secure spot on the gravy New York streets.

Robert Martinez, 40, missed the deadline on his third day at the shelter and, after picking up his bag, decamped to three others with later curfews.

Martinez, whose family and friends — whoever was left after the sudden news of the homelessness arrived — call him Bobby. And Bobby, whose grandparents and father came from Puerto Rico, is a tough New York kid through and through. He’s lived in the Bronx, in Queens, on Long Island, in Brooklyn.

The Bronx of the 1980s where Bobby grew up reeked of mischief. Guns, bodies, drugs.

“I saw my first dead body when I was 4,” he says. “Someone was putting a sheet on it and I was like ‘is this guy sleeping?’”

Life was all the more fun on Grand Avenue with the neighborhood kids rolling over each other in the park, in the street, anywhere, everywhere, till the sun would set.

The space wasn’t small for Bobby, who was then 12. To get to school, though, meant taking the bus. And taking the bus meant spending money. But he wanted shoes; good ones that people would stare at. He and most of the neighborhood kids attended a school in Riverdale. But the neighborhood rogues couldn’t afford the bus. They would climb up the back wheels and slink in through the back window. Easier and more fun, too. The only break in this routine came when one of them didn’t get in on time and was run over by the rear tires. Pronounced dead at the scene. Two days of mourning, before the kids resumed their custom. Death never terrified the neighborhood. Some secretly wished for it.

But everyone knew how to survive. Being hungry wasn’t especially difficult. Many knew the condition from birth, or before.

Abandoned buildings were another characteristic of the neighborhood that Martinez avoided. “Zombies!” Martinez called the wasted bodies huddled and cuddled around each other. That was their hub. Crack and pot and alcohol. Those were necessities one had to afford. Your body was an inexhaustible resource you could offer for trade. Until you found an escape, which Martinez did, out of the neighborhood, out of New York.

Enrolled at Manhattan Community College in his late teens, he lacked motivation. He had an urge to travel, or maybe just to leave. He enlisted in the Navy. After serving, he felt the pull of the borough. He returned, worked as a waiter and then as a cook. Money was coming in. He fell in love with a Latina. They married. A daughter arrived. When she turned 11, the family moved to Virginia. No soon after, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

The money had gone and his wife soon left too.

He returned to New York, taking turns at sleeping at cousins’ houses. His alcoholism caused conflicts, the job hunts frustrated and aggression was the norm. He was soon taking refuge on the 6 train.

For a month or so, Bobby had been sleeping upright on the train. New York may not be judgmental but it knows how to segregate: rich from poor, white from black, immigrant from native. It can tell. Homeless meant you caused trouble but Bobby wasn’t trouble.

Bobby is now at a shelter on the Upper West Side — living in Manhattan, where he once dreamed of having a home. His disability landed him in the hospital during December. After waiting five years, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks started coming. In his room, he smokes off a vape and paints watercolors – galaxies, birds and water scenes. He jumps at the opportunity to meet his daughter and spends his days listening to her play the violin or obsess over Harry Potter. But the $1,047 he receives as disability relief isn’t enough to bring her back from Virginia.

The frustrations and enigmas still sting. The Bronx is safer and cleaner and more dynamic than it was during his youth. Which means Bobby can’t afford to rent even a studio there. He understands that living in different New York neighborhoods implies adjusting all the time. But he believes that he can amend this, and make every neighborhood his own.






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