Portrait in Decline – Poncho on the Streets

| February 10, 2011 | Comments (6)


(Readers may recall several postings ago, I wrote about my young friend and neighbor, Poncho. Here is more on this seemingly hopeless case.)

These past few weeks have not been kind to Poncho. Last month he informed me that the lease on the  Section 8 government-subsidized apartment where he lived with his “girl” and her three children had not been  renewed. He offered no details about  the non-renewal only to say that they had to be out of there in a couple of days. With freezing weather and no place to go with three little kids, the youngest 14 months-old, he said he would appeal for an extension of the lease.

When I saw Poncho on the street a few days later he looked tired and defeated. He told me the appeal for an extension had been denied and that a US Marshal had come  to the apartment and  evicted them. They had gone to his girl’s mother’s place and the five of them were camping out with her, sleeping on the sofa and the floor. He said it was very noisy and he could never sleep. I asked about the five dogs and three cats they had had; he shrugged and mumbled something about giving them away. I didn’t believe him. I knew that NYC’s abandoned pet population had just risen by  five.

The next day my doorbell rang.  Expecting the ConEdison meter reader, I grabbed five dollars from the kitchen draw for a tip and rushed to answer the door. I should have taken more money. It wasn’t ConEd.  It was Poncho. He looked strangely elated and said that they found a new Section 8 apartment.  Just the kind of place they were looking for; ground floor, three bedrooms and a backyard for the kids to play in. The only thing was, he said, he needed $300 RIGHT NOW to make a down payment to the broker or they would lose the place. He said if I lent him the money he would pay me back beginning February when he got the $3800 he was due in income tax refund. Income tax refund…? What income?

Against my better judgement, I went back to the kitchen and fished out another $295 from under the dish towels. (That’s where I stash my cash in case any of you want to know.) I gave it to Poncho and was  promised  a quick pay back. Later that day I noticed he had posted a message on Facebook saying his friend Sam “wuz da greatest” for having come to his financial rescue. He also said  he had been to the barber and got a new braid job on his hair that cost $75. The movie mogul Mike Todd used to say: “being broke is just a state of mind.”  I didn’t realize until now that Mike Todd was  Poncho’s mentor…

In the meantime I got proactive and found three places that were hiring workers. Poncho had repeatedly told me  he really wanted to work, but where were the jobs? Well, now I had found some for him to check out.  A big cleaning service  company that does all the cleaning at my YMCA was hiring; and Metro Cafe, the food chain with branches all over Manhattan, was looking for workers. So was Best Buy, the electronics  store. I conveyed this information to Poncho who said he would check it all out AFTER he got into his new apartment. One thing at a time, he tells me.

It’s  strange with people like Poncho. They are incapable of multi-tasking. While he waits – how long, weeks ? – for the new apartment, he isn’t doing anything other than chillin’ with friends, playing his video games and “gettin’ wasted”, if his Facebook entries are telling the right story. Why couldn’t he find a job and go to work WHILE he was waiting?

About the income tax refund. I asked Poncho how he could get a refund on income he had not earned. He laughed and said, “Everybody does that. File a return for being self-employed. It’s simple. My friend got back $8,000 and I’m gettin’ $3800….and I’m gonna pay you back that $300…for real, I will.”

Yesterday as early winter darkness  descended on my street,  I see a pair of legs in my window. My office is in what is called an “English basement”, semi-underground where the window is level with the street. When I sit at my computer and look to the right I get an eye-level view of the sidewalk and people passing. Before the figure can ring my bell, I tap on the window pane signaling, “I am aware of your presence.”  Kind of a  South Bronx communication thing. Tap-tap, I know you’re there; no need to ring the bell.

It’s Poncho. I invite him in. He asks me if he can charge his Iphone. After he plugs it in for a recharge, he looks at me and tells me “things are not good.” It seems his girl’s mom’s landlord has demanded  they all vacate the apartment where they have been camping out.  Why? I ask. His girl’s sister has been coming there and “doin’ shit” – drugs – and because of her they all have to leave.

He tells me he and his girl and the kids have no where to go. He calls a sister who lives in Waterbury, Connecticut and she says they can come up and stay there,  with her and her “man.” Poncho looks at me with pleading eyes and asks for $100 for train fare to Waterbury. I go in the kitchen and dig out the last of the dish towel stash and give it to him.

As he rushes out the door to catch the train, I am doubly sad. Sad for Poncho and disillusioned with myself.  Why couldn’t I help him in a more meaningful way than just dishing out cash? Throwing money at him? My partner and I live alone in a four-story house with lots of space and two kitchens. Why didn’t I invite Poncho and his family to come and stay with us? Isn’t he my friend and isn’t that what friends are for? To help each other out in a pinch? I’m still trying to find the answer to my question about why I didn’t take them in.   Is it because I am afraid of “trashy” people ? I feel so ashamed of myself.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Petra says:

    Sam, taking someone in who’s just told and shown you that he will happily abuse your kindness: that’s not what being a friend is about. Poncho clearly hasn’t got much dignity and self-respect to lose; but by offering him shelter you would effectively deprive him of the chance of reclaiming it any time soon.

    Actually, you proved your friendship by finding those job opportunities – and he all but spat at it. That’s his choice for now. You need to accept that and act accordingly, and he needs to learn that he can’t make others pay for the consequences of his choices.

    Whatever about occasionally helping someone out with money – I don’t think it’s a good idea to create the impression that substantial amounts of cash are stashed away in your home. You can always tell them to come back the next day because you need to go to the bank first. A charitable disposition is one thing – but does that justify neglecting your and Ari’s safety…?

    I know I sound like an agony aunt here, but I am genuinely worried. I have first-hand experience with two Ponchos in my own family. One of them charmingly conned my mother out of her life savings. She still believes she will get it all back but in her case that’s due to the kindness of dementia.

    • Sam says:

      Petra, thanks for your wise counsel and comments. Being honest with myself, I must admit I have become emotionally involved with Poncho. That is fatal chemistry and I have vowed to sever my ties with him. My money and his self-involved life style are a lethal combination.

  2. Gary Presley says:

    I have a Poncho in my own family. We provided shelter. And food. And helped get him on his feet. Five times. See this ]]]——> rope. We’re at the end. No more. Poncho may not be evil, as I do not think my Poncho is evil. My Poncho is a narcissist and a benign sociopath who lives in his own reality where the rules are malleable to fit self-needs at the moment. My ego tells me I can fix it. Karma is laughing.

    • Sam says:

      Thanks, Gary, for your observations. I have decided to sever my connection with the self-indulgent Poncho. As another friend pointed out, the saddest aspect of this tale is the plight of the eight animals – five Yorkies and three cats – he had thoughtlessly adopted.They have most probably be turned out onto the street to freeze to death or be run over by cars. Isn’t life shitty?

  3. Roger Cranse says:

    Sam, don’t be ashamed! You did more than most people would – most people, including me, would have totally ignored Poncho – I mean like, you don’t exist. You offered him friendship and material help. That may count for something at some point, although probably not on a timetable of your choice. And one can remain a friend and withhold material support too. I admire your trying to understand and help this young man.

    • Sam says:

      Thanks, Roger. I still think if I had REALLY been as kind and compassionate as I fancy I am, I would have offered them hospitality here. But my real world side tells me I was right to draw the line where I did.

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