Beggars Can Be Choosers

Gary at his usual spot, the southeast corner of 51st and Park.Photo: Reuben Cox

Homeless though he was, Kenny was a lord-of-the-manor type, the leader of the pack. You had to be good at something, and he was good at being homeless. He would tell you that he could build a home out of anything, almost anywhere. Kenny had “32 years of road, street, and freight train,” had lived in “homeless circles and hobo camps in well over 30 states.” And when he showed up at the Chess and Checkers House in Central Park this fall announcing that New York was dead—that a homeless man could no longer live here—people in his social set took notice.

It was late afternoon, still too early for chess, and about six of them were gathered around a table strewn with newspapers, Styrofoam cups, packs of cigarettes, and the remains of Kenny’s meatball sandwich. They had been talking politics again, about all that the rich had done to the poor: taken over the Alphabets, gentrified Harlem, and next—who knows?—maybe Chinatown. Gary, the only grayhair aside from Kenny, leaned in to say he had read in Forbes that Mayor Bloomberg was worth “like, $5.3 billion! … Or $3.5 billion, something like that.” In any case, the man was rich, and it was generally agreed that Bloomberg owned the city now and was converting it into a playground wholly for his rich friends. Someone mentioned that you might soon need a Certificate of Wealth even to enter New York. Others believed a campaign to end homelessness was under way and that the NYPD had a military tank for just that purpose.

Then Kenny, rolling a cigarette, his little eyes magnified by big, round glasses, said he was convinced a “sweep” was going down. He told of an encounter with police, his second in a week. He and his girlfriend, Frenchie, had been sitting that morning on Fifth Avenue, just enjoying their coffee, when members of the NYPD’s Homeless Outreach Unit spotted them and reached out. The officers approached gingerly—“We’re not here to hurt you; we’re here to help”—but Kenny saw the guns and knew what they meant. They would put him in one homeless shelter, Frenchie in another, and would probably euthanize “the children,” their dirty little dog and trembling cat. “Thanks anyway,” Kenny told them, and the officers withdrew, but only after promising to arrest him for “anything you do wrong.”

That was it. New York was out of love with homeless people, Kenny was sure of it. He was leaving this town and taking Frenchie and the children with him. Cambridge, Massachusetts, is where you want to be, said Kenny. Lots of homeless there, plenty of free food, good social services. Maybe best of all, cops who don’t hassle you. Kinder, gentler Cambridge—Kenny made it sound like homeless nirvana.

And then he turned to the only other old man in the group, the other great survivor. Said Kenny to Gary: “So if I make arrangements, do you want to get out of here?”

“I don’t know,” Gary answered. “I got to think about it. I just had it thrown at me. I got to think about it.”

New York was out of love with homeless people, Kenny was sure of it. He was leaving this town.

The plan to escape New York was hatched not long after Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan of his own: to “make the condition of chronic homelessness effectively extinct.” His goal was as grand as the problem—with more than 36,000 people in the shelters each night, homelessness is at one of the highest points in city history. But while Bloomberg’s plan is being celebrated in press releases and panel breakfasts, homeless advocates say it’s more conservative than compassionate. The city will have a more comfortable receiving unit for homeless families, but one that will turn away two-thirds of those who are currently seeking assistance. Those already in the shelters now have less hope of coming out, since the city is replacing its generous rent-voucher system with a program designed to wean people off subsidies. As for a concerted, citywide police crackdown, Christopher Dunn, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was not aware of one, but did say, “There’s a constant problem of police officers harassing the homeless on the streets,” particularly in midtown, where Gary and Kenny liked to hang out.

It felt to them like just another get-tough policy, and Kenny at least had had enough. The decision to leave was easy for him, because that is what he did. He was the wanderer, the cynic, the panhandler who confessed to needing nothing from nobody. When a place disappointed him, as every place always did, he would simply pack and go. That was not Gary’s style. He had lived in New York for fifteen years, had a mate here, a survival system here, people here he trusted. Gary was a homeless man with roots, and the thought of leaving seemed never to have occurred to him until Kenny proposed it.

“Oh, man, Kenny really hit me with a bombshell on that one,” said Gary the next morning. He was in his usual place, where he has sat every weekday for the past year, at the corner of 51st and Park, in front of St. Bartholomew’s Church. Sometimes a very pretty Asian woman sits beside him, but Song had gone missing again, so here he was, alone—a gaunt face, a white beard, a pile of blankets on the rush-hour sidewalk.

This vision of himself, sitting beside a box that read THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP, was more or less what Gary imagined years ago, the last time he moved. Becoming homeless then seemed more an alternative to death than a fate to be avoided like death. Gary’s mother had died and a lady had broken up with him and his boss at the barbecue restaurant in Vero Beach, Florida, had asked him to shave his beard. No one was going to tell Gary what to do, at least not anyone who didn’t really care. The people who cared were gone, so Gary told his boss to “stick the job up his ass.” And he hit the road.

He left with almost nothing, and where would he go? Common sense would tell you, he patiently explained, “that a large city with a large population of homeless people is going to have more benefits for the homeless than a small city.” The choice, even then, was between Boston and New York. Gary couldn’t decide, so he left it to the fates. “I flipped a coin,” he said, “and it came up New York.”

The city never had much to offer him, but Gary had not come to set it afire. He collected cans, picked up trash, raked leaves, sold newspapers. And played a lot of chess. He shared an apartment in Queens, lost it; found another and lost it too. In his last job, five years ago, he was working with the homeless through a church when his boss decided he’d make a better doorman. Gary found the move “demeaning,” and rather than accept it, he quit and became homeless again.

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.”

Kenny was a man of charity as well, beggar and benefactor at the same time. “Stuck here on this ball of mud with the rest of humanity,” he had gone dragging along for years and years, saving whatever life forms crossed his path. “I adopt people,” he explained. “And if the opportunity comes to help them, I do.”

So he adopted the cat first, then the dog, and met Frenchie this past summer while panhandling near Harvard Square. She was a security guard who felt deeply neglected by her husband. On the way home from work each day, she began dropping Kenny a buck and saying hello to the cat and the dog. Eventually she noticed that Kenny “was so loving, so kind and caring toward his animals. Always made sure they had fresh food and water. Took real good care of them.” So Frenchie started talking to Kenny as well, and Kenny began getting friendly with Frenchie. At the beginning of August, Frenchie quit her job, and left her husband, for him.

“She decided homelessness was better,” Kenny explained.

“Technically,” said Frenchie, “I guess that’s true.”

In early September, Kenny took Frenchie back to New York with him to start a new life. On the way, the van they were in broke down, and Frenchie was grateful that her man kept a prepaid cell phone for such occasions. (The hardest part is keeping it charged; he’s rigged up his own recharger with lantern batteries.) Eventually a friend came to rescue them and dropped them off at Central Park with everything they owned.

Frenchie at first had been obsessed with finding a bathroom, keeping clean. “You adapt,” she said. “Now it’s not a problem.” But adapting to the people had been more difficult. Frenchie could not get used to the way they stared, shook their heads, preached, pulled their dogs away. She couldn’t forget the waiter at the Park Avenue Cafe who coolly told her, “We don’t serve your kind here”; nor the woman she had approached for directions who shrieked, “Stop! Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! I don’t have any money!”

Frenchie had begun to imagine there was something wrong with her. Thinking the problem might be New York, she was ready to go, if not necessarily home, then back to Cambridge. Kenny, for his part, had always moved away from police. When they told you to go, he thought it only rational that you went. He mocked Gary for standing firm, as “the political protester,” and it seemed especially important this time that Gary be made to move along.

They started in on him again, waking him up from a picnic-table nap with their reasons. Come to Cambridge, said Kenny—a town with “nice music everywhere.” The free food is both more abundant and more flavorful. “And you don’t have to walk so far to get it,” said Frenchie. And Cambridge people are nice. Even the cops are pleasant. You can panhandle and sleep wherever you want, said Kenny. If you’re caught drunk, they won’t even take you to jail; they’ll take you to “a wet shelter, where you can be loaded off your ass.”

Frenchie quit her job, and left her husband, for Kenny. “She decided homelessness was better.”

Gary observed that it’s colder there—he’d have to buy clothes and a tent. Not so, Kenny answered. Gary could stay in the doorway of the bookstore on Harvard Square, with everyone else. That was the only downside: Homeless people were everywhere in Cambridge, so there was more competition on the sidewalks. “You won’t make the same money, but you’ll have a better quality of life,” Kenny promised.

“Think about it, Gary,” said Frenchie.

And Gary, staring dully out, did indeed seem to be thinking about it when suddenly his face lit up, and he called, “Song! Where you been?” An elegant Asian woman had appeared, her hair pinned back by a pearl barrette, an olive scarf around her neck, her elegance dissolving, as she drew near, into tatters and dirt and scabs.

“Thank you for welcoming me. I was afraid,” she said. And smiling from Gary’s lap, she explained that she’d been in Jackson.

Jackson where, she didn’t know, but it was on the way to Dallas, which was on the way to Los Angeles, L.A. being the place Song has always wanted to go. She didn’t make it, again.

Song had taken off with $2,000 in disability checks, which had backed up when she spent three months in a mental hospital, where she had landed after jumping a subway turnstile. Gary examined the cuts on her face, asked if she’d been taking her medicines, and inquired how she had run out of money. “Yeah, you know,” she smiled back. “Money come and money go. I did a buffet.”

“Some buffet,” said Frenchie, and they laughed and let it go and revealed to her the plan. Did Song want to go to Cambridge?

“Yes! Maybe! I don’t know!” Gary scolded her for getting ahead of herself, but Song couldn’t stop. When would they leave, she wanted to know. “Soon,” said Kenny. “Soon.”

Song looked into Gary’s worried face. “It’s about survival? Yeah, survival,” she answered herself. “Yeah, let’s move and come back some other time—five years, six years. Okay, Gary? Okay?”

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.

Beggars Can Be Choosers