A $10 Interview

Kevin by Brendan BernhardBrendan BernhardKevin.

We met because he needed money, and I happened to be standing on Avenue A in bright, windy sunshine looking like someone who had more of it than he did. Not that he looked poor exactly. He was wearing a nifty white hat, a clean New York Jets shirt, and blue jeans. He was a tall, good-looking black man with a friendly smile and what appeared to be a positive attitude. Before handing over a buck, I asked him why he couldn’t find a job.

“Five felonies” was his crisp reply. It sounded like a movie title. One of the five, he said, involved a cut throat, but it was an “accident.” He’d served time (several times), had stayed out of jail since 2005, and had no plans on returning. We talked about this and that for a minute or so and then parted ways.

An hour later I ran into him again. He was walking down St. Marks Place. He looked cheerful and greeted me like a long lost friend. I’d already told him I was a journalist and so we decided to stop at a kebab house on First Avenue for a brief interview. Of course there was a price: We settled on $10. Since I refused to pay extra for food, he purchased a minute salad from the self-service counter, which left him with $8.81.

I quickly jotted down some basics. Name: Kevin. Age: 40. Birthplace: Yonkers. Mother a cleaning lady, father an alcoholic. It turned out Kevin did have a job of sorts: Selling roses on the street, mostly in SoHo. But since he also had five felonies on his record, and was panhandling, I cut to the chase.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Women, drugs, and alcohol.”

“What’s your problem with women?”

“I never had a problem with women. I make a problem. I don’t trust ‘em.”

Kevin 2Brendan Bernhard

The reason given was somewhat convoluted but boiled down to a story about a girlfriend – “the mother of my child” — he’d had in 1995 who had cheated on him by sleeping with an HIV-positive gay man. “If I have HIV, I’m going to murder you straight up,” he told her at the time. (He says he doesn’t have HIV.)

I asked Kevin why his life had gone wrong.

“Because of the choices I took,” he answered. As he continued speaking, he brought the side of his hand down hard on the table to emphasize his words. “My choices. The choices I took in life.”

But things have changed, Kevin said, and he sat back and smiled dreamily as talked about his romance with a woman he said lives on Avenue D: “She’s got three different men in her life. One’s in prison.”

So out of women, drugs, and alcohol, that was the story about women. Kevin brought up the subject of alcohol himself.

“As you can see, I love alcohol. I’m drunk right now. Especially during the daytime I love to drink, because I try to cover the light out. I try to stay in the dark. I sleep on the subway and go underground, and when I come out I feel like a superhero. Then I go to ATM’s and find $20 bills on the ground.”

“You find $20 bills on the ground?”

“Hell, yeah. Once I found a $50 bill standing up like this,” he said, shaping his hands as if to suggest a sculpture of $50 bill standing on its side. “That was down in SoHo. I was selling my roses. I saw it on the sidewalk.” (He also found his hat in SoHo — in a garbage can.)

I asked Kevin where he lived.

“Nowhere. On the subway, mostly. The E train. I go to crack houses on Avenue D and take a shower, because money talks.”

He then indicated that time on the $10 interview was about up. I asked him one last question: Did he believe in God?

“Do I?” he answered, a flash of anger appearing in his blood-shot eyes. “Yes, Sir. He’s my best friend. God means everything to me. He’s the Maker, the Breaker, the Shaker. He’s my Boss.”

Would Kevin describe himself as sad, resigned, happy….?

“Freakin’ exuberant.”

“Is that because you’re drunk?”

“Nope. That’s because one day I realized God loves me so much, I cried.”