Echoes in the Street

I heard Carolyn Huckabey days before I saw her and weeks before I met her. While sitting at my dorm room desk or meandering through cross campus, I would often hear a voice calling, “Yale Hunger Homeless Project!” repeatedly and clearly. Only later, when I looked for her, did she materialize — holding a magazine, approaching pedestrians and students, following her first cry with a second: “Elm City Echo!”

It’s a cold Friday morning, and Carolyn is making her way across Chapel Street toward me. She has a round face and wears her silvery hair drawn back in a tight ponytail. I’m waiting under the tree in front of the Union League Café, one of her favorite places — to advertise the Echo, that is. The spot is right across the street from my dorm, within sight of my third-floor window.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says. “I ran into someone.”

She guides me around the side of the café into an alley labeled “The Shops at Yale,” onto a bench barely large enough for two. She adjusts the two bags criss-crossing her body and sits down. I sit, too.

The Elm City Echo is a publication edited by Yale students in conjunction with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP), featuring the voices of unhoused New Haveners — and for the past four years, Carolyn has sold it. “The Elm City Echo provides a medium for personal expression for those experiencing hunger and homelessness as well as an economic opportunity for those that sell the Echo,” said Jackson Willis, BK ’19, Executive Director of YHHAP.

A state-conducted inquiry in 2016 found that on any given night in late January, 520 individuals are living in New Haven’s homeless shelters and transitional housing facilities. Nineteen percent of adults in this situation are veterans, 14.9 percent have a severe mental illness, and 12.8 percent are survivors of domestic violence. An additional 105 unsheltered people call the Elm City home.

Echo vendors are members of the transient New Haven community, many having experienced different degrees of hunger and homelessness,” explained Willis. “Usually, they have been identified for their commitment to the Echo’s cause and their enthusiasm to participate as vendors.”

Carolyn has a home of her own, although she is friends with many members of New Haven’s community, sheltered and unsheltered. Each week, she picks up copies of the Echo in packages of 24 or 48 from Dwight Hall, paying fifty cents per copy. She sells each one for two dollars, making a profit of $1.50.

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Graphic by Julia Hedges

Carolyn enjoys every minute of her work, especially because she gets to be outdoors. “When you’re in a building, closed in, it’s like you’ve got no freedom,” she says. She emphasizes this because she has spent most of her adult life working in buildings. First, there was the factory (“we used to make stitches — sutures — it was surgical”); then there was a stint at school to become a nursing aide. Later, she worked as an in-home assistant for an elderly woman, coordinated by the state-run personal care assistance program Allied Community Resources. But none of these arrangements worked out. The surgical company changed owners, and Carolyn, unwilling to ride out the uncertainty of possible layoffs, took a buyout. She left nursing school after four months, disenchanted by the structural rigidity. And though the in-home job might have been more Carolyn’s speed, the elderly woman she cared for was manipulative. “She took advantage of me,” Carolyn describes. “She was docking me [pay], charging me fees, and having me work overtime and not paying me for overtime.” So one day, she left.

Her new job with the Echo has no factory floor supervisor and no scheming boss; it allows her to be adventurous, and leaves her speech unfettered. Her voice is free to reverberate down the street, across campus, through my open window. Her current life contains echoes of her past; she still advocates and cares for others, but does so on her own schedule, following her own route.

According to Khush Dhaliwal, MC ’19, one of the Editors-in-Chief of the Echo, Carolyn has been the publication’s most consistent vendor for years. “Carolyn has recruited several other vendors,” Dhaliwal said. “She has really good relationships with a lot of different people in New Haven. A number of people have been her regular customers over the past couple years.”

***

From her sidewalk vantage, Carolyn can watch residents, students, and tourists as they move through New Haven. Often, she pays close attention to the dynamics of the couples that pass her by. She tells me that sometimes, a woman will want to listen to her sales pitch and buy a copy of the Echo, but her male partner will pull her away or say no. Carolyn tells me that she knows from experience that this can indicate an abusive relationship. “Sometimes I see guys controlling their women,” she says. “When they close that door, you never know what happens. I was in an abusive relationship, and I know what it feels like. I was strong enough to pull away from it.”

She’s been out of that relationship for more than a decade. She does not share her current apartment; she loves living alone because it allows her to stay organized and clean. Her past relationships have been messy, she says. By this, she means both physical disorder as well as the dysfunction brought by alcohol and drug abuse. I ask her where she lives, and she points down the street. Her home is about six blocks down Chapel, near a branch of the hospital.

Carolyn is optimistic. She has moved beyond her past jobs and coworkers, and now, she has bigger things in mind. Someday, she plans to buy a car to distribute food to people who need it. “I want to let them know that I do care,” she explains. “We have to have more consideration for others, because we don’t know their background and their situation. A lot of them lived a brutal life.”

When I open my copy of the Elm City Echo, I read the stories of their lives. According to Maddy Batt, ES ’19, the Echo’s other Editor-in-Chief, student volunteers spend multiple weeks working with residents at local shelters like Columbus House or Fellowship Place to develop these pieces. Many are brutal, as Carolyn described, but they are also tinged with hopefulness.

In one short story, “Living by Rules and Regulations,” a woman named Mary narrates her life, recounting her upbringing as a cotton- and tobacco-picker in North Carolina and her abrupt, impersonal eviction in January 2016 from her New Haven apartment. In an essay titled “The Hood,” an anonymous contributor recounts her aborted pregnancy at 14 and the fatal shooting of her son, but concludes by looking forward to the futures of her three surviving children — all working, independent adults.

In another moving piece, “The True Story of a Tranny,” Monique, a black trans woman, shares her heartbreaking narrative. She tells of her molestation as a child, her transition at 18, the deaths of close friends, her struggles with depression. “Then I start prostituting,” she writes. “I tried to sleep with people who had AIDS to kill myself.” Monique is now 45. She wants to inspire others to appreciate life and to get to know God better. She is HIV-free; she is close to her family; she is resilient.

Every day, Carolyn provides these otherwise-inaccessible stories with a platform. She politely demands attention; she stands respectfully at the sidewalk’s edge, but works to make eye contact with passersby. This is a tactic she learned early on in this job, she explains.

Carolyn has faced difficulties from Yale Security staff members who confront and misunderstand her, according to Dhaliwal. “One time, she was trying to sell issues of the Echo, but Yale Security … assumed that she was just soliciting money for her own purposes,” she says. “I don’t’ think [the officer] actually understood what the Echo did. Carolyn just moved to a different area.”

Despite her efforts to connect with passersby, Carolyn says she is often ignored, especially by people not used to being in a diverse city with a predominantly black population. Often, these people are Yale students told to stay within campus’ bounds, wary of certain members of the New Haven community. Sometimes, people laugh at her, but even more just stare straight ahead. In both cases, she keeps her head high, continuing to make her sales pitch, maintaining its volume. She believes in the Echo’s mission, and she won’t be silenced.

***

Since my interview with Carolyn, I know to look for her during my daily routines — and start noticing her more often, realizing that she has always been at the periphery of my interactions. In the morning, she stands outside Union League under the tree and then moves through campus in the afternoon, vocal but largely unacknowledged. A few hours after our meeting, I walk by her as she is describing the Echo to a student leaning against a tree on Cross Campus. I try to catch her eye, but she is intent on making her sale.

On Saturday morning, she suddenly appears outside my window as I sit down for my cereal, her announcement of “Yale Hunger Homeless Project!” echoing off of the brick buildings. I watch for five minutes, but all the pedestrians, mostly white business-people and couples out for a stroll, ignore her. Her eyes patiently track them as they walk by, some of them passing less than a foot away, others moving to be on the opposite side of the sidewalk. Carolyn’s gaze does not linger; she quickly moves on to the next person coming down the street.

***

An untitled poem by Carolyn is on the back cover of the Echo — she gets the page to herself. Notably, her piece is the only contribution that’s handwritten. Her penmanship is triangular, jaunty. Her poem ends:

Because I’m out their selling books doesn’t exclude me from society. I’m faced with alot of negative remarks but it’s OK. I’m that woman that ignores negativity and goes on with my days with plenty of smiles and happiness.

At the bottom of the page sits her signature: elegant, effortless. Next to it, a tree with six leaves grows from the paper’s edge, reaching upwards.