By Sabina Mollot
Richard Luksin, a former Stuyvesant Town resident, thinks everyone should experience being homeless once for at least two weeks. It is one of his holiday wishes, actually, since he believes it would make people more compassionate towards those who are homeless as well as the poor in general.
Luksin, a 69-year-old retiree now living in Minneapolis, may be a familiar name to some readers of Town & Village, since he’s a relatively regular writer of letters to the editor, usually reminiscing about the old days of Stuy Town when he grew up in the complex. But what most people don’t know about him is that he was homeless in New York, after getting evicted from his own apartment on Avenue C in 1979. He’d attempted to fight the owner in court for about 10 months, but it was really just prolonging the inevitable. He was after all, many months behind in rent with no way to pay it.
“I only worked at jobs I liked,” explained Luksin, “and the jobs I liked tended to pay minimum wage. I used to work at bookshops. I did that for about 10 years. And I liked to play in a rock band, and unless you’re famous you make no money doing that.”
After getting evicted, Luksin spent a good five months being homeless. To sleep, he’d ride the subway from the start of a line to the end, then do the same on another train. “Certain stations you could go to the bathroom,” he recalled. “Then you’d get back on the train.” His girlfriend was usually doing this with him, although when things would get too rough, she’d take a few days off from the routine and stay with family.
Other times, when Luksin didn’t even have the money to get on the subway, well, “It was tough,” he said. “It was winter.”
Going to a shelter wasn’t an option. There weren’t that many in the city at the time and those that were there were too dangerous to consider. “They were extremely dangerous,” said Luksin.
Still, he admitted, being homeless to some degree was a choice. Before living on his own in Stuyvesant Town, Luksin had grown up there in his parents’ apartment in a nearby building. Eventually they moved to a suburb of Minneapolis, since his father had frequently had to travel in the Midwest for business, and was tired of the constant trips to and from New York. So when Luksin was given the boot by Met Life, he knew he could have just stayed with them for a while.
“I had wonderful parents, but I didn’t want to be a burden,” he said.
Then one day, while still in the city figuring things out, he happened to be sitting in the front row of a movie, where he met a woman. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes, were both Rolling Stones fans and they hit it off immediately. Although she’d been living in Queens with her parents, “She moved into the streets with me,” said Luksin. “Our love was that deep.”
While he did end up moving in with his parents in Minnesota for a while, when his girlfriend found a place in Queens, Luksin moved again to be with her. They lived in that apartment for 12 years, which, said Luksin, was better than being homeless, but just barely.
“That was another form of death,” he said, and before long, he was back on the streets.
And this time, he found them to be a much meaner place. Friends he’d previously relied on for an occasional place to crash had either moved from the city or died. One of the latter was a man who use to let Luksin sleep in the back of his store. This meant many more nights on the subway, and more days wandering familiar places that somehow felt different.
“I would sit on a bench thinking, I’ve been here a thousand times and now I’m here as a homeless person. I don’t belong and yet I do.”
Still, he added he was lucky in that he was never assaulted or harassed on the subway, with most of the other late night riders also just looking for a place to sleep.
He added, “If people had to go through this, like finding out where you’re going to go the bathroom next, they’d be much kinder to the poor. Republicans all think the same way that if you’re poor it’s because you don’t want to work.”
When reminded about the fact that he only chose to work at jobs he loved rather than do one that he didn’t, Luksin answered, “No one ever offered me that. I was well known for being in bookstores.”
One longtime job was at the Metropolitan Bookstore on East 23rd Street, which was frequented by Met Life employees. Another place he worked was on St. Marks Place, where Lower East Side legends Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg and Abbie Hoffman were customers. He recalled how one time, Hoffman casually walked out with a book, informing Luksin, “I’m stealing this book. I’ll bring it back tomorrow.” And he did.
Following his second stint on the streets, once again Luksin moved back in with his parents. By then, it was 1993. His parents were getting older and Luksin’s return was also beneficial to them.
“Anyone would tell you I had the coolest parents,” he said. “They were wonderful people. They just wanted me to be happy.”
After they died, Luksin stayed in their apartment, until once again he was evicted. He said he wasn’t working at that time because he was focusing all his time and energy on music. After losing the apartment, he bounced around in the Minnesota shelter system. One shelter, he recalled, was particularly horrific.
“All ex-addicts, ex-cons, anything you can put an ex in front of, and some didn’t even have an ex,” he said.
The better shelters, however, had waiting lists of several years. Eventually, someone suggested to him that he apply for senior housing.
“They said, ‘People die all the time. You’ll get in quicker.’” So he did this and has been in his own apartment ever since. Luksin said has the best apartment in the building, but on the downside, “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
(It’s safe to say if anyone has a cheap room to rent in Stuyvesant Town or even somewhere in an outer borough, he’s interested.)
After being away for nearly two decades, Luksin once again made a trip to Stuyvesant Town in the summer of 2013. Aside from the obvious differences from when he grew up in the complex, like the presence of dogs and the gleaming white Oval Amenities spaces, Luksin said he couldn’t help but notice the generation gap between newer and more longterm tenants.
“You could feel the animosity between the older and younger people,” he recalled. “It wasn’t directed at me, but I could still feel it.” But, he added, “I would still rather live there than anywhere else in the world.”
He in particular enjoyed living on Avenue C, although this meant as a kid he’d attended some of the neighborhood’s rougher schools like PS 61 and Seward Park High School. His junior high school was JHS 104, where his was the first graduating class.
It was also an opportunity to meet other Stuy Town kids who’d attended PS 40 previously and therefore “they were a different species.” PS 61, in contrast to PS 40, was, as far as Luksin remembers it, “a violent hellhole. There was no such thing as racial tolerance back then.”
Once in high school, he started learning to play guitar. He later joined a band called Cross, which was inspired by the style of the Rolling Stones. (Luksin also went by Ritchie Cross as a stage name.) The band played at places like Max’s Kansas City and The Ocean Club.
Luksin credits his friend, Daniel Silverberg, a kid from the Bronx, who wrote songs for inspiring him to do the same. “It was like osmosis. Hanging around with him, I instinctively knew some things.”
Interestingly while he never made money off his music in New York, somehow someone had gotten a hold of one of his songs in Germany (though Luksin has no recollection of ever recording) and started sending him royalties.
He has no idea who sent the money either and it wasn’t much.
“Twelve dollars here. A hundred dollars. It wasn’t often. There was a name (on the check) but it was in German. Hey, god bless you, Germany.”
These days, Luksin, whose last job was as an elevator operator, which he did for 10 years in Minneapolis, lives on Social Security. His rent is paid partially on Section 8.
When asked if he had any holiday-time reflections, he said, “There’s a saying that next to a circus, nothing leaves town quicker than the Christmas spirit. The principal disease (in this country) is greed. That this country has homeless people is a crime. It’s a shame. We have a minimum of five million people who are homeless when we have enough money in this country where everyone can have an apartment somewhere.”
He added, “Let’s hope this year is a new year and not just the same one over and over again.”