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Beggars Can Be Choosers


He has spent ten of the past fifteen years outside, often by choice, because he preferred it to being inside, with someone telling him what to do. Gary was his own man, but a lonely one without a plan. He actually wanted to be told what to do—didn’t mind being taken care of—but only by those who really cared about him. He has found such goodness in the universe; many times, almost wandering into the path of a truck, he has heard a voice say “Stop!” and he has done as he was told. “So I have a guardian angel,” said Gary, “and if I have a guardian angel, there must be a grand scheme of things.” And if there is a grand scheme of things, then “maybe this is what I’m supposed to be going through.” Maybe survival is proof that someone’s in charge.

“I believe in God, and he’s in control. So, therefore, if I have to go through lumps in my life, I’m not any worse off than Job, who had boils on his face and lost his whole family, his farm, and his cattle. Everyone was against Job, and it turned out he was the only one who was right.”

So Gary got comfortable with homelessness. He shunned shelters, where they “try to control what you eat and watch on TV and everything, and strayed into Central Park, where he met some “nice guys,” including Kenny, who right away beat him at chess. Gary accepted Kenny as his “friend, counselor, adviser,” and Kenny took Gary in as “one of the people I look out for.” Gary realized he needed someone to look out for as well, and found Song, “a lady that needed help.” He promised the Lord he’d take care of her, and after Kenny married them in a mock ceremony years ago, caring for Song became “almost a full-time job.” Anyway, Gary found a community there, outside the shelters.

“Hey, if you’re going to be homeless, it’s better to live this way, selfsufficient, than have the state support you.”

He typically begins begging (that’s the term he prefers; he handles no pans) at 7:15 in the morning and remains at his post until almost noon. Gary begs on holidays at 52nd and Park; on Saturdays, where the shoppers are, at 53rd and Fifth; but most days in front of St. Bart’s. It’s important to beg in heavy traffic, he explains, because there are “not that many sympathetic people in New York.” Out of a thousand, maybe two to five will notice you. He could probably make more money if he had “a big sign, got all political about it,” he says, but he likes the small sign he has, which makes no pleas, offers no explanations, but only gives thanks. Gary tries to beg in a way that’s not demeaning, but you never get used to it, he says. He still feels like he’s in The Twilight Zone—that episode in which a wall slides up and a man realizes he’s in a cage, surrounded by Martians. “I feel like that all the time.”

He assumes that those who make deposits truly care about him, and when someone gives without greeting, “I feel like giving them their money back. What’d they do it for—their own conscience?” Those who give nothing never notice the passages he’s highlighting in his Bible (Proverbs 29:7—“The righteous considereth the cause of the poor: but the wicked regardeth not to know it”). And those who give happily hear Gary call after them, “God bless!”

He considers the generous to be “realistic people who know ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ ” Every day, he depends on 20 to 30 “regulars,” and also looks forward to the arrival, between 10:30 and 11:45, of his “angel.” This is the term reserved for donors of the highest level—people who “will talk to you every day, invite you home for dinner, try their very best to get you off the street.” He recalls one of them, a “retired commodore” who had sailed around the world and who, one bright day, took Gary sailing around Long Island Sound. Now there was Fred—Fred who was tall and young, who worked in real estate (“Probably owns the place”), and who had several times thrown Gary a $20 bill.

On Christmas Eve, the best day of the year, when he’s at it from 7 to 7 (“I take a break for lunch, you know”), Gary can make up to $200. Summertime, when sympathy’s low, he might bring in just $8 a day. But Gary figures he and Song need about $30 “just to daily survive,” and most days he gets that, with a little left over. He and Song have “a little savings, a couple hundred dollars” at Commerce Bank on 55th and Sixth. Gary chose the bank because it doesn’t require a lot of paperwork, has a machine for converting change to cash, and “they have a greeter who opens the door for you and says, ‘How are you today, sir?’ ”

How, indeed. Gary, despite his savings, still lives like a beggar. He needs glasses, and probably doesn’t brush “as often as you,” so is missing a few teeth. He has had tuberculosis, and obtained a Medicaid card for the treatment of his diabetes. He pays $75 a year to shower at the Parks Department’s recreation center on 59th Street, but since he doesn’t go there every day, “and it’s hard to find a bathroom sometimes, you might get a rash wearing the same underwear several days in a row.” And “fungus toes,” too, from walking around with wet feet.

Gary says his body is breaking down, that he sometimes feels as though he’s going to pass out, but the greatest threat to his existence, in his opinion, is the police. To beg, to be, he needs a place to stop, and the police are forever trying to move him along. Gary does not go easily. He asks the police why. He waves before them the proof of his right to be, the federal case law allowing “peaceful begging”—Loper v. NYPD, 1993—that he copied in the public law library at 34th and Madison. And what do the police do? They have thrown away his case law and his blankets, his birth certificate, all of his possessions. They have written him tickets, kept him in court, arrested him six times.

This much Gary knows to be true—Isaiah 32:7, “The instruments also of the churl are evil: He deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words even when the needy speaketh right.” And he knows, too, that God is on his side and a Judgment Day is at hand. The single goal in his life, apart from staying alive, is to file a lawsuit “naming the mayor, the superintendent of police, the former superintendent—everyone who ever harassed or arrested me whose name I have in my head.”

Lawyers have told him it’s “a multi-million-dollar lawsuit,” but Gary tries to be realistic. “Let’s say we get half a million. That’d be great, right?”

All this and more was his in New York. Could he walk away from it? It was hard to say. He needed to talk to Song and also to his angel. Fred had offered to set them up for six months in some low-rent district, and Gary wanted a progress report and some advice. So he kept looking down the sidewalk, waiting for Fred.

“You see a guy all fancy-looking and he squats down and starts talking to me, that’s him,” said Gary. “That’s Fred—squats down so he can talk to me face-to-face.”

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