'The castle is home'
Life through the eyes of 'street men'
By Iana Seales
May 11, 2004
"Home is home whether it is ruins or a fancy two-storey building," says Brian Green, one of several squatters now living in shacks at the burned out Royal Castle site.
Standing outside the wrecked structure looking for work, Green declares: "The Castle is home," unmindful of the irony.
Wearing battered denim jeans, a faded, shabby jersey and two odd rubber slippers, he squats on the pavement and shares the tale of how he ended up sleeping there after the fire. Because he is concerned about his appearance and body odour the man insists on maintaining his distance before he begins his tale.
Often mistaken for a man in his fifties - the years of hardship have left their mark - Green says life on the streets is nothing but distress, yet it is all he knows. And as he opens up, the picture of a literate man surfaces and the street image fades with every word that rolls off his tongue.
'Turned to marijuana'
Green was born at Wismar Hill, Linden 33 years ago. There, family life was hard, and after years of fighting to "get it right" at home, he turned to marijuana, his solace even now.
But he was busted for the drug months later. Doing time with the "country's roughnecks" as he puts it, at age 19 was "interesting".
After he was released, Green spent a few years working the streets and reading through the help of a friend he met while in prison. Then a woman walked into his life.
Bragging about his "good looks" then, Green says he fathered three children. But responsibility got the better of him. He says people wanted nothing to do with him after word got around that he had done time and money stopped coming his way.
Unable to rise above the situation Green left his children and took up residence on the Lombard Street pavement. But constant problems arose over accommodations as the number of inhabitants grew and before long `the street man' as he is popularly known had trouble sleeping at night.
Then came the fire that destroyed Mohammed's Enterprise, Royal Castle and Auto Supplies but changed Green's arrangements. Within weeks, Green had moved 'up' from the pavement to the ruins and he was not alone. Twenty-one destitute people moved in with him.
One of the new inhabitants at `the Castle' as it is now called was contracted to build resting quarters amongst the ruins and to date has put together ten zinc shacks at a cost of $700-$1000 per shack.
But conflict followed Green even there. Forced to leave his zinc shack he now sleeps sometimes in a burned out car in the Auto Supplies building; or tucked behind a tiled counter in the Royal Castle ruins.
With Styrofoam pillows and cardboard bed sheets, Green says his only concern is the increasing number of mosquitoes. He describes mosquitoes as "the biggest street problem, even during the day".
And though he sometimes dreams of a warm bed Green says he is content with his cardboard and Styrofoam until change is created in his life; change that will provide a place to stay, a steady job and a home-cooked meal.
Asked to sum up his life, Green has two words: "mistakes and regret". So where did he go wrong? Marijuana. He says if there were something he could go back and change it would be to stay drug free.
Living his days with no thought for the future, Green says he cannot escape death and will someday "give up the ghost". As to where he might find rest when the ruins at Royal Castle are cleared out Green is not sure. The alternative is "crowded Lombard Street".
Slumped in a corner some distance from Green, is a young, unkempt man clothed in filthy denim jeans and a messy cream-coloured jacket. Lines of fatigue stretch across his expressionless face and dark blotches are evident under his eyes.
Tipping a battered, plaid cap in greeting, he gets to his feet and says a cheery, "good afternoon". With outstretched hands, he says: "I am Yankee and I sleep here too". After the introduction, he offers to tell his story.
A fluent speaker, the man says he was deported from the United States two years ago and had nowhere to go but the streets.
The Guyana-born man who gave his name as Mohammed Khan came to Guyana alone. And today is still alone.
Reliving his days in the US the man says those were times he wishes he could have again. 'Yankee' turns and grabs a torn, old, black bag. After tumbling through it, he produces two photographs; one of his wife and children and one of himself in the US.
Then he opens up about how sweet family life was back then, until the day he lost his temper and struck his wife. According to him, the woman told US authorities that he had kidnapped her and threatened to kill her. Days later, he was before the court and pleaded guilty to charges of assault and battery. Slapped with two years' probation, he had to attend anger management classes and domestic violence community workshops.
Months later the matter was called up before Federal Court and Khan found himself in the hands of the US Immigration and Naturalization Services. Immediately after, he was deported and has neither seen nor heard from his family since.
An old sawmill on Lombard Street was his first home. A bed of sawdust surrounded by rotten boards gave Khan comfort, and he remained there for a year. Bothered by no one and nothing he passed the year better than any 'street man', according to him, since food was always provided by a man who lived opposite.
Then the owner received word that a `junkie' was on his premises and Khan left before he was asked to leave.
He took up residence on the Lombard Street pavement days later, and was there until the fire. After the fire, he shelled out $700 and was soon sleeping in a zinc shack.
Khan has a sponge pillow that someone gave him after he did a cleaning job and has "fixed up" his shack. Scraping for money and whatever food he could get during the day, Khan lives on the edge.
His daily hustle includes washing cars, minibuses and cleaning yards. Hoping that someday he will "get up out of the dumps", Khan says he survives by the grace of God. Prayers keep him going and he continues to hope.
Some days he would have two meals and others none. There are also days when there are no job offers and he would just drink water and sleep to allay the hunger. And though he lives on the street, Khan says he sometimes refuses jobs that seek to exploit his situation: those that pay next to nothing and demand all of his energy and time.
And he is not ashamed to be a 'street man.' For him, it was out of his hands. So he tries to make the most of it. "Anybody could end up like me. I didn't plan this and two years ago I didn't see it coming."