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Beggars Can Be Choosers


When Song and Gary wanted to be alone, they went into Central Park, said Gary, “under the pine trees with the boughs that come down to the ground, so the police with their lights can’t see you.” He might have expected to sleep there tonight, but a few hours after Song had come, she had gone again. At eleven o’clock, Gary instead bedded down in the doorway of a Madison Avenue lingerie shop, reading a book called Isle of Woman, “about the beginning of man.”

He lay beneath giant images of perfect women, thinking mainly of his flawed one. Ordinarily, he would put cardboard beneath him, but he hadn’t felt like carting it around just for himself, and so rested against cold marble. Where had she gone? Song had said she was only going for coffee. “I mean, she does this. It’s no surprise. I just hope she’s all right.”

Gary reached into his pocket for some cold medicine. “Hey, what do you think of this storefront?” he said. “Pretty nice, huh? I mean, it can rain, snow, sleet, hail, and you don’t get wet.”

He had been sleeping here for about a year. The owners of the shop had given him a letter of permission, which he used to ward off the police, sometimes five cars at a time. On other nights drunks from a nearby club would pull off his blankets and kick him. Usually Gary could take that sort of thing in stride.

“I have a pretty good sense of what you do in order to survive,” he said. It’s just like in chess: “You’ve got to be able to anticipate any outcome.” But alone now, without Song, he could anticipate almost nothing.

Everything was different. Gary was gloomy about his lawsuit: “It gets kind of discouraging when the people you’re gathering evidence against keep throwing away your evidence.” He didn’t know what to do about Cambridge. He wasn’t at all sure about survival. “Anything can happen. All it takes is a plane out of the sky, right?”

And where was Fred when Gary needed him? “It’s a crying shame I haven’t seen Fred.”

But most of all, where was Song? It was hard to imagine life without her. Maybe she was in a shelter; that would be better than hospital or jail. Maybe she would show up in the middle of the night; she had done it before. Anyway, there was nothing Gary could do.

“Song, Song, Song! Why do you do this to me?” Sighing, putting a hand under his cheek, Gary said he hoped she had a guardian angel. “Some people do.”

The sidewalk sweepers woke him, and Gary went on to “a lousy morning.” Song was not in evidence, nor was Fred. And though the Dow had gone up 111 points the previous day, giving was down, he had noticed. “I don’t know why.”

Also, for the second day in a row, a cop had told him he was obstructing the sidewalk and had to move. Gary had instead packed away his blankets and stood beside his box, becoming both less obstructive and less conspicuous.

“Tired of this crap,” he muttered. He was standing there, smoking, glowering, when from out of the crowd came Song again. Gary brightened again and asked again, “Where you been?”

“I been relaxing, Gary.” She smiled and asked him for $2.

“Where you going?” he wondered, giving her the money. Song took the money and said, “Going for a walk. Meet you later in the park.” Gary watched her go. “Well,” he said, “at least she’s alive.”

Later that day, Kenny sat at the table, eating a fluorescent something called a Glo-Ball (“Pure sugar—totally bad for the health”) and talking of the journey ahead. He was pretty sure they would be leaving without Gary. Gary was “used to a certain pattern in his life,” said Kenny. “The unknown is scary for a lot of people.”

But Gary had been coming around. Song did indeed meet him that night, and her presence, and perhaps Fred’s continued absence, and also what seemed to be increased attention from police, made Gary begin to see things in a new way. Winter was coming, he realized. “Winter is really tough for a lady,” he said. “I’ve got to get Song inside. That’s what Kenny has got to do, too. He’s got his dog and cat to take care of, but he’s also got to get his lady inside.”

There are no shelters for unmarried couples in New York, but Kenny said he knew a good social worker and they might be able to get an apartment in Cambridge. Maybe Cambridge would be better. Gary hated to leave his lawsuit, but thought he might find a Harvard law student to sue the NYPD. The trip would turn his life upside down, he said, but “I’ve got to take care of Song and myself.”

He only wished Kenny could give him a few days’ notice. Gary didn’t want people to “wonder what happened to me for the rest of their lives.” He wanted to put a sign up at his regular spot “so concerned citizens would know what happened.”

“Concerned citizens!” Frenchie scoffed. “Those people don’t care about you,” said Kenny.

Late on the night of November 1, four homeless people came out of Central Park with a dirty little dog, a trembling cat, and everything they owned. At 60th and Fifth Avenue, they climbed into a van with a driver, which Kenny had scored for $350, and drove out of New York. Gary never posted his farewell sign.

A couple of weeks later, it was Gary’s voice coming over Kenny’s cell phone: “I’m at Harvard! It’s fantastic!”

He had just finished a game of speed chess in a coffee shop there. The money in Cambridge was less, he reported, and the food slightly more expensive. It had recently snowed five inches, and they were all still out in the cold. Song had begun wandering off again, and Gary was considering finding her a dog, something to take care of, to “give her stability.”

But he did not miss New York—not much. Cambridge cops were easy, and Gary was free, out of “the rat race,” at last.


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