*The following is a story written in November 2017.*
Marcin Dabrowski, 32, brings his hands up to his forehead, and gently pushes his palms against it. “It hurts here,” he says in a thick Polish accent. He moves his hands to the side of his head, “and here.” Then the crown of his head, as he runs his hands though his short blonde hair. “And here.” He looks up with his icy blue eyes, made more striking against his skin which seems more tan than it should be for November. Cheery Christmas music plays on a cheap CD player in the background. “It hurts everywhere.”
Dabrowski is homeless after arriving to the U.S. from Poland 11 years ago. He spent the night on the M train Saturday, as the train went back and forth between Brooklyn and Queens. “I feel more safe on the streets than I would in the shelters,” he said as he scooped up another bite of gravy soaked vegetables at a community Thanksgiving dinner Sunday afternoon in Ridgewood, hosted by The Greater Ridgewood Youth Council located at 59-03 Summerfield St.
There has been a 74 percent increase in New York City’s homeless population in the last decade, according to numbers from the Coalition for the Homeless. However, these numbers only include those who can be counted when they stay the night in shelters. Creating what Henry Fury, 78, a longtime advocate for the population and a minister at United Presbyterian Church in Ridgewood calls, “a faceless population.”
Dabrowski falls into this category, along with his friend who sat next to him at the dinner on Sunday, Arek Jasinski, 44. Both men are part of a small group who have made base camp underneath the M shuttle tracks, at the intersection of Forest and Putnam Avenues in Ridgewood. Dabrowski and others from the street gather at this corner to sleep on warmer nights, talk about who’s ahead in Polish soccer, and drink. Heavily. The rendezvous point has long been a source of contention and concern in the community, as the intersection is regularly brought up at meetings held by Community Board Five.
“Probably, I have a problem,” said Dabrowski of his drinking habits, which ousted him from a home four years ago when he was kicked out of his mother’s house. He hasn’t spoken to her since he gave her the key, and only recently has Dabrowski considered seeking out sobriety.
“When I drink too much my heart feels like it will blow up,” he said. “It scares me.” But he said nurses at the hospital refute his claim, and tell him it’s too slow. He said they tell him, “Mr. Dabrowski, you should eat three times a day,” to which he tries to explain to them he’s on the street, and he will usually only eat once a day if he’s not filling his stomach up with vodka. “I know something’s wrong,” he said, but the nurses only treat him “like air.” Like nothing.
Young girls line up at the front of the room to perform a dance, and Dabrowski and Jasinski turn around in their chairs to watch. The children run in small circles, with the pom-poms on their Santa hats bobbing up and down with each fast movement. Dabrowski and Jasinski speak to each other in Polish and laugh. Jasinski mutters something in Polish and Dabrowski quickly punches him lightly in the shoulder and scolds him. The exchange ends in low laughter. Dabrowski leaves his slice of pumpkin pie untouched, but his plate of food has been scraped clean twice.
Both men join the room in applause, then Dabrowski continues to point out his injuries. Two scrapes on his forehead, a cut on his left hand and he points at another injury on his left shoulder. Jasinski chimes in then. His green eyes shake a bit in their sockets, and he laughs as he unfolds his arms to show off his thumb, which broke and then healed into an L-shape.
Jasinski only scoffed with a slight smile when asked what happened.
“Street life. It’s fucking crazy,” he said.
Jasinski said he will soon return to Poland with help from a local church. He feels shame for going back home with empty hands after 17 years in the U.S., he said.
“Everyone is going and coming,” said an indifferent Dabrowski about losing his friend to Poland. He admits his indifference is, “probably my self-defense.”
Dabrowski has lost four of his friends to the streets. He names each of them and the place they died. Johanna died at the hospital, she was 57. Adam also died at the hospital, he was 39. Mietek died on a bus stop bench last Christmas day, he was 60. Jurek died on the streets after an asbestos exposure led to a cancer diagnosis, he was 60. His friends never found a place to call home, even in their death, and this is something Dabrowski wants to change for himself. He said he is entering a rehabilitation center on Tuesday.
“Joy to the World,” comes onto the CD player, it skips a beat as a woman holds the speaker up for the whole room to hear. Another group of young girls form a staggered line at the front of the room and begin another dance.
“What can I say. It’s bad,” said Dabrowski. “But I’m still alive.”