I live in New Britain, Connecticut, a city that is constantly haunted by its past. The reminders are in the empty retail stores and on the faces of a lot of people. Years ago, before factory jobs were exiled overseas and poverty took over, downtown had a venerable atmosphere, with opulent hotels and grand movies theaters that looked like a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I love New Britain and always felt at home here. I grew up next door in Berlin, which is full of caddy housewives and fathers who only want to procreate varsity athletes, but I was never accepted because I quit sports. I’ve always gravitated toward New Britain. My family is Polish and there has been a large Polish population here. My first memories were walking around a park in the city.
But like most cities on the east coast, New Britain went into a period of great decline as the 1990s approached. Still, you can’t help but be attracted to New Britain. It’s like having an ugly pet. In the end you can’t let ’em go. I love the shitty bodegas like Jimmy’s Smoke Shop and local clubs where you can still smoke cigarettes. I live in the west end, which has some really nice, quintessential New England homes close to a reservoir with the cleanest drinking water in the country. The Metacomet trail also crosses for a brief moment there, near fields of apple orchards. When it’s not freezing outside, I’m usually found wandering at Walnut Hill Park, which was designed by the man who designed Central Park, Frederick Olmstead. Next to the park is the New Britain Museum of American Art, the oldest museum dedicated strictly to American art in the USA. New Britain has always treated me well, especially after I needed a place to disappear into after living out of state.
One thing there is a lot of in New Britain is homeless people. Shelters are packed. It’s been a problem for a while now. Many of the homeless hang out at central park right in downtown. Then a package store opened near there this summer and it was a disaster. The homeless were drunk all the time. They were being ticketed by police and picked up by ambulances all the time. The owner said most of his business came from the homeless, if you can believe that.
In the fall of 2013 I visited a building off Broad Street with my friend Erin Stewart, who is now mayor. It was a meet and greet, and one person who was there I still think about. His name was David Banaszek. A man in his 50s, he had on a grey sweatshirt, a backwards hat, and wore glasses. He looked like any lifer from New Britain who worked hard with his hands and just wanted to end his day in peace with a beer. Except he was homeless. And he was there pleading for help as his first winter out on the street approached. Speaking with Dave, I realized that he was the kind of guy you wouldn’t expect to be on the street. He didn’t drink or do drugs. One thing I noticed about people who are on the streets or down and out is that they will talk to anybody. They are not shy people. David was different. He had a soft-spoken, downcast tone as he spoke. He had recently become homeless after being unable to find work as an electrician. After the nearby Friendship Center stopped taking people in because it was full, Dave turned to the streets. He told me that most mornings his alarm clock was the sound of a train whizzing by his head as he slept outside. And New Britain is a tough, violent city. There are parts you just don’t go into.
I took down Dave’s number (he had a burner cellphone) after I told him I was a newspaper reporter who lived in the city. My intention was to write a story about his new-found homelessness and how he was the sort of person you usually don’t see out on the streets in New Britain. Like, this is the guy who worked a blue-collar job his whole life and didn’t want any trouble. Why is he out on the streets? But I knew that having Dave recount his struggling life to me while I sat comfortably in a warm house and took notes on my Macbook would only make me feel like a fraud. The least I could do for him, and the only real way to do the story, was to follow him around for a night and see how he lived. See where he went, how he suffered. That was the least I could do. He was going to take me around. But I never got to do it. After weeks of back and forth and arguments with a publication I freelanced with, it was a no go. During this time I would call Dave to make sure he still had a phone. Other times he would call me, and ended the conversation with something like, “It’s rough out here. Please call me back.” One time I saw him as I was leaving a bar downtown. He seemed okay. He had a girlfriend who was also homeless. I told him to take care, but I never heard from him again.