Anna Quindlen was born in 1953 and graduated from Barnard College in 1974. She worked as a reporter for the New York Post and the New York Times before taking over the latter’s “About New York” column, eventually serving as the paper’s deputy metropolitan editor and creating her own weekly column. Quindlen later wrote a twice-weekly op-ed column for the Times on social and political issues, earning a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1992. She also wrote a biweekly column for Newsweek magazine. Quindlen’s essays and columns are collected in Living Out Loud (1988), Thinking Out Loud (1993), and Loud and Clear (2004). Her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, appeared in 2012. Quindlen has also published two books for children, four books of nonfiction with a how-to bent, and nine successful novels, most recently Alternate Side (2018). She lives in New York City.
In this essay from Living Out Loud, Quindlen mingles a reporter’s respect for details with a keen sense of empathy, using examples to explore a persistent social issue. When Quindlen wrote, in 1987, homelessness had only recently become a severe and highly visible problem in New York City and elsewhere in the United States. The problem has not abated since then: Using government data, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that more than half a million Americans are homeless on any given day.
Her name was Ann, and we met in the Port Authority Bus Terminal several Januarys ago. I was doing a story on homeless people. She said I was wasting my time talking to her; she was just passing through, although she’d been passing through for more than two weeks. To prove to me that this was true, she rummaged through a tote bag and a manila envelope and finally unfolded a sheet of typing paper and brought out her photographs.
They were not pictures of family, or friends, or even a dog or cat, its eyes brown-red in the flashbulb’s light. They were pictures of a house. It was like a thousand houses in a hundred towns, not suburb, not city, but somewhere in between, with aluminum siding and a chain-link fence, a narrow driveway running up to a one-car garage and a patch of backyard. The house was yellow. I looked on the back for a date or a name, but neither was there. There was no need for discussion. I knew what she was trying to tell me, for it was something I had often felt. She was not adrift, alone, anonymous, although her bags and her raincoat with the grime shadowing its creases had made me believe she was. She had a house, or at least once upon a time had had one. Inside were curtains, a couch, a stove, potholders. You are where you live. She was somebody.
I’ve never been very good at looking at the big picture, taking the global view, and I’ve always been a person with an overactive sense of place, the legacy of an Irish grandfather. So it is natural that the thing that seems most wrong with the world to me right now is that there are so many people with no homes. I’m not simply talking about shelter from the elements, or three square meals a day or a mailing address to which the welfare people can send the check — although I know that all these are important for survival. I’m talking about a home, about precisely those kinds of feelings that have wound up in cross-stitch and French knots on samplers over the years.
Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like it. I love my home with a ferocity totally out of proportion to its appearance or location. I love dumb things about it: the hot-water heater, the plastic rack you drain dishes in, the roof over my head, which occasionally leaks. And yet it is precisely those dumb things that make it what it is — a place of certainty, stability, predictability, privacy, for me and for my family. It is where I live. What more can you say about a place than that? That is everything.
Yet it is something that we have been edging away from gradually during my lifetime and the lifetimes of my parents and grandparents. There was a time when where you lived often was where you worked and where you grew the food you ate and even where you were buried. When that era passed, where you lived at least was where your parents had lived and where you would live with your children when you became enfeebled. Then, suddenly where you lived was where you lived for three years, until you could move on to something else and something else again.
And so we have come to something else again, to children who do not understand what it means to go to their rooms because they have never had a room, to men and women whose fantasy is a wall they can paint a color of their own choosing, to old people reduced to sitting on molded plastic chairs, their skin blue-white in the lights of a bus station, who pull pictures of houses out of their bags. Homes have stopped being homes. Now they are real estate.
People find it curious that those without homes would rather sleep sitting up on benches or huddled in doorways than go to shelters. Certainly some prefer to do so because they are emotionally ill, because they have been locked in before and they are damned if they will be locked in again. Others are afraid of the violence and trouble they may find there. But some seem to want something that is not available in shelters, and they will not compromise, not for a cot, or oatmeal, or a shower with special soap that kills the bugs. “One room,” a woman with a baby who was sleeping on her sister’s floor, once told me, “painted blue.” That was the crux of it; not size or location, but pride of ownership. Painted blue.
This is a difficult problem, and some wise and compassionate people are working hard at it. But in the main I think we work around it, just as we walk around it when it is lying on the sidewalk or sitting in the bus terminal — the problem, that is. It has been customary to take people’s pain and lessen our own participation in it by turning it into an issue, not a collection of human beings. We turn an adjective into a noun: the poor, not poor people; the homeless, not Ann or the man who lives in the box or the woman who sleeps on the subway grate.
Sometimes I think we would be better off if we forgot about the broad strokes and concentrated on the details. Here is a woman without a bureau. There is a man with no mirror, no wall to hang it on. They are not the homeless. They are people who have no homes. No drawer that holds the spoons. No window to look out upon the world. My God. That is everything.
These are the 5 Question
What is Quindlen’s Thesis?
What distinction is Quindlen making in her CONCLUSION with the sentences “They are not the homeless. They are people who have no homes”?
Why does Quindlen believe that having a home is essential?
Quindlen uses examples to support an ARGUMENT. What position does she want readers to recognize and accept?
Do you agree or disagree with Quindlen’s position? Why or why not?
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