By WILLIAM SHANNON
I wandered into Waryas Park in Poughkeepsie last week and asked a 53-year-old man named Jake Wells, who was sitting on the top of a picnic table, his back facing the Hudson River, if he would be willing to be interviewed. He kindly obliged. What follows is a talk we had—the first such talk that has appeared on Hudson River Zeitgeist this year.
William Shannon: Have you grown up around the Hudson Valley?
Jake Wells: No, actually from Queens.
WS: How long you been around here?
JW: Let’s see. I’d say about nine weeks.
WS: What’ve been your greatest struggles?
JW: Let’s see. That’d be—. To get into the bathroom when I need to go and whatnot. ’Cause somebody else is using it or it’s locked up. To stay dry when it rains everywhere. And, getting back and forth to the store, to the market, when it’s really hot.
WS: Have you done a lot of traveling?
JW: At first not really, but in the last few years, yeah, I’ve done a bunch of traveling.
WS: Where to?
JW: Mostly around the state. Let’s see. From Prospect Park. To Yonkers. To Cold Spring. Here. Montauk. Just around the state.
WS: What part of Queens did you grow up in?
WS: So you said some of your struggles are day-to-day things around here.
WS: Throughout your life, what’ve been some of your other struggles?
JW: When my family was around—looking after them. That was one of the struggles because there wasn’t a lot of us around.
WS: Taking care of your parents?
JW: Yeah taking care of the parents. They passed away.
WS: Where do you stay these days?
JW: Here—pretty much.
WS: In this park?
WS: What do you do in the winter?
JW: Usually try to find someplace—before here it was the subways. It’s warmer. Everybody goes to the subways in the winter.
WS: Do you have any plans yet for this year—where you’ll head?
JW: Still trying to work out stuff and whatnot.
WS: How have you seen things change over the course of your life?
JW: Things’ve changed in the usual ways. But in a positive way too.
WS: What positive ways?
JW: Obama becoming president and getting re-elected is very positive. I’m glad I—I never thought I’d have lived to see that happen. I wish my parents could’ve lived to see it happen.
WS: What other things’ve changed?
JW: Sadly, the job and employment opportunities for people. Jobs became a lot more difficult for people to attain. When times got tough, people used to-could go out, no matter how bad things got—.
If you had a family or something like that and you needed to work, you didn’t have to go on public assistance or welfare. You could go out and get a job.
Pumping gas. You could go out to a factory—almost any factory—and get a job. But then, they closed the door on all of that and made it way harder. So that a lot of people would have to stay on public assistance.
Not a good thing.
WS: What jobs have you had over the years?
JW: House painter. Security guard. Contractor.
WS: You’ve been in Poughkeepsie nine weeks? What do you like and dislike about Poughkeepsie?
JW: Well there’s fresh air. That doesn’t hurt. But there’s not that many book stores or libraries. I’ve noticed that. This is a place that sure could use more book stores.
WS: What do you like to read?
JW: Been reading this one lately.
WS: “The Principles of Physics”
JW: Yeah. Got this from Dutchess County College. It’s an old edition. They were giving them away. So, they gave it away.
WS: You read any fiction too?
JW: Oh yeah, I read—let’s see. I read some Star Treks. Battlestar Galactica. Star Wars. I like stuff like that.
WS: What’s a dream you haven’t fulfilled yet?
JW: Let’s see. To find my little sister and give her a hug.
WS: When was the last time you saw her?
JW: When she was two years old.
WS: How come you haven’t seen her since then?
JW: She was abducted. She’s free—she got free and whatnot. But I haven’t seen her.
WS: Do you know where she lives now?
JW: Not exactly. No.
I know she married somebody. But I don’t know where.
WS: So other family members have been in touch with her?
JW: Yeah, mostly friends. Friends of the family.
WS: Any other dreams that you wish you could fulfill?
JW: To re-unite with other members of my family.
Because what happened with my little sister involved somebody that was very popular at one time. Had a lot of influence. And this person and my family never got along with each other. So, that person always carried a grudge and made things very difficult.
WS: If you could give your eighteen-year-old self advice, what would it be?
JW: Knowing what I know now—. I’d tell my eighteen-year-old self, if you were ever approached by people you don’t know and they give you some sales pitch about, we’re having problems with this person or that person, could you help us out? I’d tell my eighteen-year-old self, Point them in the direction of somebody else, turn your body in the opposite direction and run like a bat out of hell.
WS: Did you help people too much?
JW: Three years ago, yeah.
Three years ago, yeah.
WS: What happened three years ago?
JW: I found out the truth that was very different from what people are taught when they’re kids. When you’re young.
When you’re young, they tell you, or they teach you that—let’s say that if you work for the fire department, police, Coast Guard or any type of agency like that—that if somebody approached you and says these people need your help because this group of people or that person is bothering them or persecuting them or trying to take something that belongs to them, and they need your help, and whatnot. ’Cause this person is doing this, this person is doing that.
And you say, Well that’s not right. Let me go over there and see if I can do something about it. Right?
And I found out that it’s not as simple as that. Because a lot of times, what really happens under the scene, is that the very person that you were told was persecuting those people and making people suffer, people are in fact secretly loyal to the person. That person gives them things and tells them, I want you to be on my side. And you’re thinking you’re helping those people, but secretly, those people are very loyal to that person.
Three years ago, I never knew that. I never knew that. I thought like everybody else that, well, if you go over there and you help them, you know, that soon they could be free of that person. Because that person is no good. I found out it doesn’t work like that.
WS: What are some things that make you content nowadays?
JW: This—clouds. A breeze. Being able to have a dry place at night.
WS: Any other things?
JW: When I dream about mountains.
Always makes me feel better when I dream about mountains.
WS: What about mountains makes you feel better?
JW: Everything. Everything. The snow-cover. The air. Feels crisp. Fresh. Wide open spaces. Everything. The water, it’s pure-clean. Everything.
Always love the mountains.
WS: How often do those come through in dreams?
JW: Not so often. Not very much.
At least not as much as I would like.
WS: When you went to Montauk, how long were you there?
JW: Only like a day or so.
WS: What’d you do there?
JW: Mostly walked around. The view is really far, when you go to the pier. And the ocean stretches out, you can see almost forever.
WS: And just about every winter you go to the subways?
JW: Used to. Yup. Go pretty much all over the city.
WS: Can you describe a normal day for you these days?
JW: Get up. Go to the bathroom, if it’s open and whatnot. Wash up. See if I can go down there, to the market, to the store. See if I can get something to eat or drink. After that, come back here and read.
WS: Do you have advice on how to lead a good life?
JW: From experience, watch out for people who tell you you’re supposed to do what everybody else does just because everybody else does it. Make sure whatever they tell you that everybody else does is the right thing, before you do it.
WS: That’s all the questions I’ve got, but is there anything you’d like to add?
JW: See what tomorrow brings. That’s all, I guess.
And—If you live with your family, when you come into contact with them, hug every one and tell them how important they are to you. If you live with your family.
Every single day.