This is the heart of the downtown heroin district, says Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officer Joe Zelinka. With his eyes darting and his back to a concrete wall, Zelinka, or “Z-Man” as he calls himself, offers a play-by-play commentary on the street life at the corner of 11th and M Streets NW. “Everyone’s dirty,” he says, revealing a hard-boiled attitude beneath his baby face. “I could drag every one of these people down to the station on something.”
Z-Man points out two local dealers and explains the “dance” they use to sell their product without getting busted—an elaborate ritual that keeps the dealers’ hands off both the white stuff and the green stuff. Then Zelinka gestures to “Transformer Alley,” 10th Street, where the transvestite prostitutes strut their stuff, and to “Little El Salvador,” a rundown apartment building across the way on M.
Apart from its shadowy drug traffic, the intersection does little to distinguish itself. On the northwest corner squats a cluster of drab townhouses, built in the subsidized box-style circa 1978; south across M Street is the blocky office of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and across 11th, beside Zelinka, stands the 11-M convenience mart and dry cleaner. On the northeast corner, the nearly deserted Bosco Carry-Out occupies the ground floor of a turn-of-the century brownstone.
Despite its humble appearance, the corner of 11th and M holds a special place in the annals of urban anthropology—where the crossroads is better known as “Tally’s Corner.”
Nearly three decades ago, a young doctoral candidate named Elliot Liebow spent 20 months among the men and women who congregated on the corner and in the surrounding Shaw neighborhood. The result was a groundbreaking study of the urban poor. With the pen of a novelist and the eye of an anthropologist, Liebow charted the unwritten codes and behaviors that governed life at 11th and M, carefully guarding the identities of his subjects and even the precise location of the corner—until now.
Though Liebow wrote the study as a Ph.D. dissertation “for myself and a five-person committee,” it was discovered by Little, Brown and published in 1967 as Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men. Policy-makers, intellectuals, and suburbanites all hungered for its insights into the seething inner cities, and Liebow’s slim volume became an overnight classic. In the New York Times Book Review, Harvard psychiatrist and author Robert Coles pronounced Tally’s Corner “a valuable and even surprising triumph.”
A quarter-century later, Tally’s Corner retains its relevance: the book has been cited in 145 scholarly articles since 1985, and it remains a staple in bookstores and in high-school and college classes. Its total sales approach 750,000, and the paperback is now in its 31st printing, says editor-in-chief Bill Phillips.
But while Tally’s Corner made its splash, its author dropped out of sight, forsaking celebrity for an anonymous career managing research projects and reviewing grant applications for the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). NIMH had funded Liebow’s street-corner research, and it agreed to keep paying him while he turned his field notes into a dissertation. He stayed until the spring of 1984.
Then lightning struck: Doctors diagnosed Liebow with inoperable prostate cancer. The disease was spreading to his neck, spine, hips, and sternum. The oncologists gave Liebow a year to live, 20 months at the most. Tragically, it looked as if Tally’s Corner would achieve the honor of outliving its author.
Seven years later, Elliot Liebow is still with us, thanks in part to an experimental drug he found in Canada. Liebow jokes easily with young researchers in the basement office he still occupies at NIMH. He speaks openly about his singular achievement, Tally’s Corner, and about his grim struggle with cancer. Soft corduroy pants and a worn wool sweater make his 6-foot-1-inch, 175-pound frame seem less imposing. His gentle, bemused countenance reveals few traces of the latent illness.
The conversation soon turns to Liebow’s latest venture into the world of the dispossessed. In coming months, Liebow will complete his second book, an in-depth study of suburban homeless women he has come to know as a volunteer since his bleak diagnosis. One more time, Liebow’s eyes and ears will provide a glimpse inside the heads and hearts of the downtrodden—whom most of us recognize but seldom see. If Tally’s Corner is any harbinger, the public face of homelessness will never be the same.
Liebow is a rare breed, Robert Coles wrote in his review of Tally’s Corner: “an honest and talented anthropologist who can see clearly, feel unashamedly, and write a straightforward sentence.”
When Liebow first reported for duty at 11th and M in January 1962, virtually everyone on the corner was black. Liebow, the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Russia, was white, educated, and, by now, solidly middle class.
He made friends anyway. Raised just 16 blocks from Tally’s Corner, Liebow was accustomed to African-Americans. Though he played on segregated playgrounds as a child and attended segregated schools, his neighborhood was more or less integrated. After school, Liebow worked behind the counter of his parents’ “New Deal” grocery store at 2nd and F Streets NW, returning change to as many black hands as white.
After bouncing from Eastern to McKinley to Tech to Central High during the 10th grade, Liebow dropped out of school. After a year or two of odd jobs and a wartime tour of the Pacific with the Marines, he returned home and passed a special test to matriculate at George Washington University under the GI Bill. In the early 1950s, armed with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, Liebow ventured to New York, where he struggled as a journalist. His columns for the New York Journal of Commerce and for another literary beacon, the Jewelers Circular Keystone, were always late and seldom sterling, he says. Much of the time, Liebow was unemployed, and more than once he trudged down to the blood bank and cashed in a pint, collecting five bucks to cover cab and subway fares as he answered the want ads.
“I still have trouble looking at the New York Times because of those damn ads,” Liebow admits.
In New York, Liebow met and married a Brooklynite named Harriet Hirsch. And, as Liebow puts it, “If you married a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, at least at that time, you had to go to graduate school.” So Liebow returned to Washington and studied ancient history for a year at the University of Maryland before switching to Catholic University and anthropology, which a Maryland professor touted to him as “the history of history.”
By 1961, Liebow was again at loose ends. Though his coursework was completed, he still hadn’t done the fieldwork necessary for his doctorate. At age 36, he couldn’t afford to pack up his wife and two daughters for a year’s research in the jungles of Borneo or even an Indian reservation in South Dakota. Instead, Liebow earned a living by writing the anthropology-sociology chapters for Army field guides to Turkey, Guinea, and Japan from his desk at American University. Then one day he came across a job notice for field research right here in Washington: studying “Negro street-corner men” for the National Institutes of Mental Health.
The job called for Liebow to immerse himself in the life of the inner-city street corner—as best a son of Jewish immigrants could. In the barren language of the social sciences, this method is called “participant observation,” or, worse yet, “ethnography.” It does not rely on the conventional tools of the social scientist—surveys, questionnaires, one-shot interviews. Those work fine for gleaning opinions and statistics, but this study sought a different kind of “data”—firsthand insight into the dynamics and undercurrents of street-corner society.
Liebow accepted the job on condition that he could use the research for his dissertation. His project director, Howard University professor Hylan Lewis, suggested that he start in Shaw.
One of the first men Liebow met was “Tally,” a 31-year-old who was burly enough to have once been a prizefighter, as he claimed. Everybody seemed to know Tally, and nobody challenged his assertion. Then there was “Sea Cat,” 27, a superb storyteller who always seemed to seek the unusual in ordinary people or events; “Richard,” who had left his hometown in the Carolinas suddenly two years before, after assaulting (with provocation, by his account) a white policeman; and “Leroy,” the baby of the group, who acted younger than his 23 years. Liebow made himself at home in the beer joints, the poolroom, and on the street, gaining and losing friends, listening to music, talking, drinking, and, above all, listening.
Liebow’s speech changed to match that of his new companions: more cursing, less formal grammar. His appearance changed, too, but not drastically. He dressed the part “as best I could without looking silly or feeling uncomfortable,” he wrote; his warm-weather uniform consisted of a T-shirt and slacks. And his habits became distinctly un-middle class—hanging out and drinking on Friday and Saturday nights at Sylvia’s apartment, where liquor flowed and music seemed to play all night; driving the men down to court when they were caught up in a criminal case—as when Lonny strangled his young wife, but was later acquitted; visiting the men in their rooms in apartment buildings like the Alabama, which has since been torn down; and even playing the numbers now and then. It helped, too, that Liebow had a car and a little extra cash for pinball, coffee, and beer. Still, some things took a little getting used to, especially the music. One night, he went to a dance (featuring Jackie Wilson) where he was the only white person in the audience.
“The music was so foreign to me that I picked out the wrong beat and was unable to identify several of the band instruments. I was, willy-nilly, an observer,” he frankly conceded in an afterword to the book. His wife put up with his absence good-naturedly; after all, this was Liebow’s job.
In the opening scene of Tally’s Corner, a pickup truck drives slowly down the street on a weekday morning. “The truck stops as it comes abreast of a man sitting on a cast-iron porch and the white driver calls out, asking if the man wants a day’s work. The man shakes his head and the truck moves on up the block, stopping again wherever idling men come within calling distance of the driver. At the Carry-Out corner, five men debate the question briefly and shake their heads no to the truck….” The driver finally recruits two or three men from up the block and the truck disappears.
“What is it we have witnessed here?” Liebow asks in the book. “Lazy, irresponsible men turning down an honest day’s work? Or a more complex phenomenon marking the intersection of economic forces, social values and individual states of mind?”
To the truck driver, the answer was self-evident: “Singly or in groups, belly-empty or belly-full, sullen or gregarious, drunk or sober, they confirm what he has read, heard and knows from his experience: these men wouldn’t take a job if it were handed to them on a platter.”
But Liebow had befriended these men, and he knew that their choice not to work reflected truths unseen by the truck driver. One by one, he explained why each declined the truck driver’s offer of work: Boley worked Saturdays collecting trash and was off that weekday; some, like Sweets, worked nights “cleaning up middle-class dirt, dishes and garbage”; laborers like Tally had already returned from the job site because the ground was too wet and the weather too cold for pouring concrete. Still others had personal reasons: Clarence had to go to a funeral, Sea Cat to federal court, to answer a subpoena in a criminal case. The man on the cast-iron porch was crippled by arthritis, and a bout with polio had withered Stoopy’s left leg. The rest were on unemployment, which made working a break-even proposition.
“Only a handful remains unaccounted for,” Liebow wrote. “There is Tonk, who cannot bring himself to take a job away from the corner, because, according to the other men, he suspects his wife will be unfaithful given the opportunity….” Another, Arthur, neither had a job nor wanted one—his choice.
Rather than excuse or cover up Arthur’s “don’t-work-and-don’t-want-to-work” attitude, Liebow found it “especially significant,” for it emphasized the reality that “getting a job, keeping a job, and doing well at it is clearly of low priority on the street corner.”
Only after painting this truth in uncompromising tones did Liebow look for the whys, finding them not in a deviant or shiftless culture but in a dysfunctional economy. “The most important fact,” said Liebow, “is that a man who is able and willing to work cannot earn enough to support himself, his wife, and one or more children. A man’s chances for working regularly are good only if he is willing to work for less than he can live on, and sometimes not even then.”
Later chapters described the trials of the street-corner men in parenthood, marriage, love, and friendship. In each case, Liebow documented telling gaps between the public myths of the street-corner man and his private reality. And he watched his friends’ marriages and liaisons form and dissolve, sometimes violently:
“As the man on the streetcorner looks at the reality of marriage as it is experienced day in and day out by husbands and wives, his universe tells him that marriage does not work. He knows that it did not for his own mother and father and for the parents of most of his contemporaries. He knows that Lonny strangled his wife and almost paid with his own life as well. He sees Clarence trying to keep his wife from getting at the woman she has found him with while two of their four children look on in frightened silence. He knows that Tom Tom, whose busboy job did not pay enough to support his wife and children, moved away from his family so they would become eligible for [welfare]. He sees Leroy and Charlene circling slowly on the sidewalk, with Charlene holding a broken Coke bottle thrust in front of her and Leroy pawing at her with his right arm wrapped in his jacket….Nor is there—to redeem all this even in part—a single marriage among the streetcorner men and their women which they themselves recognize as a “good’ marriage.” Love and marriage—like work, and school before that—was just another arena of failure, Liebow concluded.
Faced with the simple truth that he could not pull his weight in the traditional role of manly provider, the street-corner man retreated to the corner, which Liebow described as “a sanctuary for those who can no longer endure the experience or the prospect of failure.”
“If, in the course of concealing his failure,” Liebow wrote, “or of concealing his fear of even trying, he pretends…that he did not want these things in the first place….We do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting his claim at face value.”
Tally’s Corner got Liebow his doctorate and more. Like any good dissertation, Liebow’s bounced its insights off of the established theorists in the field. But the meat of the book is his direct, undistilled observation and his own relationships with the men on the corner—for which there was no theoretical framework. It reads more like Invisible Man than a component of a turgid bureaucratic study. While others had been theorizing about the “culture of poverty” or preaching against the “institutional racism” that created it, Liebow had gone out into the streets and simply steered by his own lights.
“With a rare combination of concern and tough-mindedness, and with vivid and telling specificity,” wrote one reviewer, sociologist Thomas Pettigrew, “he provides insight into the relation of street-corner men to their jobs, children, wives, lovers, and friends.”
“The reader begins to glimpse the world through the eyes of Tally and his colleagues, although the writer never allows you to forget that these men are your fellow Americans, that their society is your society, that their lives and yours are profoundly intermeshed.”
Today, Tally’s Corner retains its power to provoke discussion, although its research is almost 30 years old. No book like it has appeared in decades. Last February, an article titled “Tally’s Corner Revisited” appeared in the Harvard Education Review, written by Burt Saxon, a social studies teacher at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn. Saxon has been working in New Haven’s inner-city, racially mixed high schools since 1970. Looking for provocative books that might stimulate class discussion, Saxon came across Tally’s Corner early on, and he’s been teaching it ever since.
“What I found was that students at every level responded,” Saxon recalls. “It’s not only good social science, but it’s so well-written. I think it’s a masterpiece.”
In the article, Saxon traced his students’ changing attitudes to the book. In his first year, students demanded angrily: “What business does a white anthropologist have conducting research in a black neighborhood?” But Clyde, the most militant black student in the class, ultimately accepted Liebow’s analysis as “right on,” Saxon wrote.
A few years later, the overriding issue was no longer Liebow’s race but the pervasive sexism of the street-corner men, as typified by Leroy’s approving comment (reported by Liebow) that his new girlfriend was “a real mule” with a government job. “Who wants to live with a mule?” Liebow asked. “Man, that’s the best thing to live with,” Leroy replied. “When you got somebody who can pull that wagon, you really got something.”
Saxon recalls that debates over sexism produced the most dramatic teaching moments over the years. One day, three Jewish girls squared off against three black boys who identified with Tally and the street-corner men; finally, a black girl interrupted the shouting: “It is important for we black women to stand behind our men,” said Carol, president of the senior class. The men traded high-fives, confident they’d won the debate, but Carol continued: “However, sometimes our black men get some wrong ideas. When this happens, we black women must tell them—” she paused and spun on the three men”—You’re sexists!”
In the late ’70s, when he moved to a new school for gifted students, with more black students and more students from middle-class and stable working-class families, Saxon encountered a more conservative critique of the street-corner men as lazy and shiftless. “Let’s face it,” said Cassandra, “most of these men are lazy bums. Liebow just made excuses for them because they were his friends.” In recent years, discussion in Saxon’s class has focused on drugs—a topic barely treated in Tally’s Corner but now a central fact of urban life.
“I started to think that maybe it was finally out of date,” Saxon said. “But then I read the concluding section again—absolutely as valid today as the day he wrote it in the ’60s. He simply said that in order for society to function well, everybody has to have a chance to earn a decent living. That’s as true now as it ever was.”
Liebow’s insights may have held up over time, but his method of “participant observation” was essentially shelved by social scientists—even as Tally’s Corner achieved steady sales. The reason was race: When Daniel Patrick Moynihan (another admirer of Tally’s Corner) released his stark study, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” in 1965, he was struck by a firestorm of rage and wrath from black critics. After that, few white social scientists ventured forth into the inner city.
“Moynihan was broiled,” says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson, perhaps the only leading academic still employing participant observation to capture the dynamics of inner-city life. “Black academics were just emerging, and [Moynihan] was a perfect foil. Given his experience, a lot of whites were deflected from studying ghetto families, and the blacks that did do the work were ideological.”
While the ’60s produced such classics of urban anthropology as Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto, Herbert Gans’ Urban Villagers, and Lee Rainwater’s Behind Ghetto Walls—as well as Tally’s Corner—the ’70s and ’80s produced little work from the liberal or humanistic perspective. “They never filled the vacuum very well,” admits Anderson, who is black. “So much good [social science] work was never done.” And the poor once again receded into invisibility.
So neglected was the tradition of participant observation that the editors of U.S. News & World Report must have thought they were breaking new ground when they asked, “What Keeps the Poor Poor?” in a cover story last October. “Finally somebody has asked inner-city residents themselves for answers,” announced the subhead of the three-page article about a recent survey of 2,490 ghetto dwellers.
“In recent decades, Americans have debated the whys of ghetto poverty across dinner tables and bar stools, at academic panels and presidential press conferences,” the magazine said, “all the while lacking one central piece of evidence—the real-world testimony of inner-city residents.” (Evidently, the magazine considers “Americans” and “inner-city residents” two separate categories.)
The magazine based its piece on a series of in-depth interviews conducted by the acclaimed University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson. “Their tales reveal numerous inadequacies in the theories about ghetto poverty,” it said, “and a trove of insights into the daily lives of inner-city minorities.”
Wilson himself believes that social scientists’ failure to listen to the inner-city poor has crippled liberal policy-makers in recent years, leaving them unable to counter the arguments of hard-hearted conservative scholars, who were buoyed in the ’80s by the simplistic, Reaganite anecdotes of welfare queens purchasing vodka with food stamps.
“When liberal scholars returned to study these problems in the early 1980s, they were dumbfounded by the magnitude of the changes,” Wilson wrote in a 1985 essay. “From the perspective of liberal social scientists, policy-makers, and others, the picture seemed more confused than ever.”
Liebow’s second book began as the private ritual of a dying man, an exercise to keep useful and busy in his final days. After his doctor’s verdict, Liebow left his job at NIMH and began volunteering at a soup kitchen near his home in the Maryland suburbs, then at a homeless shelter where his new friends sought refuge from the night. (Liebow granted interviews for this article only on the condition that the shelter, even the exact suburb, not be identified.)
“I really enjoyed the women,” Liebow says, “and I started to come by more often.” With permission from the shelter director and from the women themselves, Liebow resumed an old habit: In stolen moments, he started taking notes again. Soon, his card files were filled with fragments of his conversations with the women, his observations of their behavior and attitudes, and the smallest details of their bewitched lives.
“I didn’t have any long-term plan in mind,” Liebow says. “I don’t know why I started; I knew how to take notes. I guess it was a way of structuring my life, of giving it a point.”
Meanwhile, friends at the National Cancer Institute alerted him to a new treatment that had been discovered by a French-Canadian endocrinologist in Quebec. The drug (which has since been approved by the FDA under pressure from patient advocacy groups) pushed Liebow’s cancer into remission, where it stayed for about three years. In 1987, he accepted a visiting professorship at Catholic University.
Liebow later found another experimental drug to stop the spread of the tumor. But this one had known side effects. Shortly after Liebow began taking it in April of 1990, he felt a strange tingling, he says: “In February, I suddenly found that I couldn’t get out of a chair or walk.” He spent the next three months confined to a wheelchair, and he still gladly accepts a hand going up and down stairs.
By then, Liebow’s notes were beginning to jell into a second book, documenting what fellow anthropologist Constance Perin calls “the little murders of everyday life that horrify ordinary reason and devastate simple justice.” Liebow calls it “crazy-making homelessness.”
Today the book, tentatively titled Tell Them Who I Am, is nearly finished. And though he is sitting on an offer from a university press, Liebow’s partial draft has yet to be accepted by a major publishing house. Harper Collins has passed on it, as has Little, Brown: too academic, they say, and too depressing for a public whose concern for the homeless is waning steadily.
Yet Liebow remains optimistic; after all he’s been through to produce it, you couldn’t blame him for entertaining a sense of divine mission about his seven-year labor. Though he guards his draft jealously, he did provide his introduction, conclusion, and a chapter called “The Servers and the Served,” about life in the shelters and the women’s dealings with social service bureaucracies—which he describes in an often outraged, impatient tone that is nowhere to be found in Tally’s Corner.
“There are many homeless people in America and that is a shame,” Liebow writes. “Shame on you, shame on me, shame on America. Shame because it is the result of choices we have made; shame because it does not have to be.”
Liebow recalls that some women in the shelter said and did things that were startling or puzzling; several of the women were considered mentally ill by those around them. (One jokes of being an M.D.—for manic-depressive.) But throughout his new book, Liebow is hesitant to equate homelessness with mental illness. He cites the conclusion of sociologist Morris Rosenberg that insanity is an interactional concept—dependent as much on the diagnostician as the diagnosed.
Though not competent or willing to make clinical judgments about their relative sanity, Liebow reports that with a little patience, “almost all the women with mental or emotional problems were eventually and repeatedly accessible.”
When the women do behave insanely, Liebow says, it is often the mind-bending realities of homelessness that drive them to it. The pages of the new book are peppered with wrenching illustrations of the tattered safety net in which the homeless are entangled: rules that don’t make sense, security procedures that demean the homeless and provide little security, programs that don’t work, and rule-makers, many of them, who have exhausted their capacity to listen and to care.
One woman applies for temporary medical assistance: After weeks of waiting, she receives a voucher that is already expired. Another applies and gets coverage valid for one more day. Shelter staff decide that a third woman should apply for public assistance, and they deliver an ultimatum: Either apply within 48 hours or get out of the shelter. But when she visits the welfare agency, a social worker sends her to the unemployment office to prove that she’s ineligible for unemployment benefits. The next day she returns to the agency, but the social worker is out sick and no one else will see her. The social worker is out sick the next day, too, and begins vacation the next. Unable to apply, the woman is soon out on the street again.
Liebow makes an appointment for another woman with the director of an employment program for the handicapped, and he comes along for the interview. The director, whom Liebow describes as “distinguished-looking” with “an air of competence and an impressive social presence,” finds the woman a fine candidate for his 9-month-old program, and he encourages her to put her name on the waiting list.
“How long is the list?” the woman asks.
“There are 65 names in the computer,” the director responds.
“How fast does the list move?” the woman continues.
The director says he doesn’t know: “No one has been placed yet.”
“Crazy-making homelessness produces a world of paradoxes and contradictions,” Liebow writes, “situations in which people disagree and are both right; people in situations they cannot tolerate another day but have no alternatives; problems that have no solutions.”
So what answers does Liebow offer for the tragedy of homelessness?
He smiles sheepishly, then recalls his last day on Tally’s Corner: Aug. 28, 1963, the day of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall.
“I went over to the Alabama apartment house and tried to get a couple of the guys to go up there with me,” he recalls. “I remember one man telling me, ‘You couldn’t get them down there with an atom bomb, not unless they were going to pick pockets.’ And he was right. None of them did come. But that night, there was an exhilaration. By the time we got back, everybody had gone. They were ashamed to admit they hadn’t been there.”
“I really thought we were on the way back then,” Liebow muses, calling President Johnson’s 1964 civil rights address at Howard University “one of the highlights of my life.”
“I really thought he meant it and the nation meant it.” The reminiscence leaves Liebow angry and disappointed. “I’m less sure now,” he says. “I’m less sure about everything.”
hough he sat through five hours of face-to-face interviews for this article, plus a half-dozen phone conversations, Liebow adamantly refused to revisit the corner of 11th and M.
“It’s just not there anymore, not in the existential sense,” he said. “The addresses are there, but that’s it. The houses are not there. The people are not there….It’s not a neighborhood anymore.”
And indeed, the 11th and M streetscape of 1962 and 1963 has all but vanished. Scores of old row houses and tenements have been bulldozed and replaced by such forbidding edifices as Pepco’s substation at 11th and O, the huge subsidized apartment complexes on M Street between 11th and 13th (where fire engines seem to be in perpetual attendance), and the burned and boarded-up public housing at N.
The District Liquor store is still open for business on 11th Street north of M, still a hangout for older black men who congregate out front or in the alleyway beside. And there’s still a carry-out on Tally’s Corner, the Bosco Carry-Out, a descendant of the “New Deal Carry-Out” that was Liebow’s base of operations. “Fish Chicken Shrimp Boxes,” offers a shattered sign above the door. “Sandwiches Submarines.”
Inside, owner Chung Jong Ho says business is slow, which is not surprising given the sorry selection of collard greens and Kraft-like macaroni and cheese behind the counter of Chung’s vacant eatery, not to mention the suspicious-looking Oriental entree posing as the daily special. Like Liebow’s “New Deal Carry-Out” (he borrowed the pseudonym from his parents’ grocery store), the Bosco’s dining amenities do not include tables and chairs.
One cosmic clue indicates that 11th and M is the famed Tally’s Corner: the name inscribed on the crown of the 1900-vintage brownstone that houses the Bosco Carry-Out. “Eliot,” it says, in red sandstone.
Community activist Cornbread Givens agrees that everything is different now in Shaw. “The violence and the economy and the drugs,” laments Givens, “it’s never been like today.”
“Back in those days, there were a lot of mom-and-pop shops. It was a nice, sleepy urban neighborhood. Closed down early at night, except a couple of poolrooms and corner stores. A lot of that neighborhood cohesion has been lost.”
Liebow deflects questions about 11th and M today, saying he knows no more than what he reads in the paper. And while the homeless woman of the ’90s may not appear to have much in common with black street-corner men of the ’60s, Liebow’s new book shares much with Tally’s Corner: Once again, he focuses our eyes where we would prefer not to look. The homeless woman’s apparent “insanity,” like the street-corner man’s shiftlessness, become human and reasonable once we take the time to know her and to see the world through her eyes.
“He’s one of the few people I know who gives these women their due,” says one shelter director, speaking anonymously to preserve the privacy of her homeless clients. “Elliot genuinely likes them, which is rare. And that’s why they talk to him.”
“Elliot has a different kind of understanding for these women, because he treats them like equals.”
“I felt a real kinship to some of those guys,” Liebow says, recalling the men on Tally’s Corner, “and kinship in the sense that I really didn’t think there was that much difference between us. Others did things I couldn’t imagine myself doing, but that’s true, too, with the homeless women. I feel very close to some of them. I feel that even with the sex difference that what they do makes sense.
“It’s reasonable. It’s rational. And it seems like a very ordinary and natural behavior that comes out of some very extraordinary circumstances. I might do exactly as they do and behave exactly as they do in the same circumstances.”
Soon we will be privileged to relearn these lessons from this dying man of uncommon empathy and humility. After so many years of insidious debate and fruitless hand-wringing about the underclass, about the deserving and undeserving poor, the message will come none too soon.