It’s a fancy Japanese restaurant now, some kind of fusion cuisine where diners kneel at the low tables that make dinner an endurance exercise. When I was a boy in 1986 it was an empty storefront with rails and diamond relief metal for steps. That homeless man, he slept on those rusty diamonds and turned his coke bottle glasses to sunlight that crept in between the buildings at certain hours of the day. He was always so grave, so watchful and would salute me when I passed with my step-mother, holding onto her with one hand and returning his greeting with the other. The homeless in New York City are often ignored or feared, but they entertain us on our subway rides and call to us during our commutes like ghosts in the corners of our eyes. They laugh at the air and speak to people we can’t see, share their smells with us on hot subway cars in August or March. Poke at our guilt and privilege, giving us a chance to soothe both with a bright coin in a dirty palm.
George Orwell wrote that beggars are despised not for being indigent, but for choosing a trade at which they make no money.
TriBeCa was almost empty then except for two bars and a ragtag bunch of lost boy artists, some now trying their hands at raising children. Nearby a hardware store had bins of random junk you could buy for a dollar and I rummaged there for hours, finding treasures in bits of stove and car parts, once a mild burn from some mild acid that had leaked all over everything.
He never asked for anything, just lay wrapped in his sleeping bag with an ear turned toward a radio that was always silent. Once after we greeted each other I asked my step-mother why he couldn’t afford batteries for his radio.
“Some of these guys, the real crazies, they have rolls of money in their pockets. The radio probably works fine.”
It’s strange how different a reply is from an answer.
Behind him the empty storefront sat like a cave with a glass door. Open sesame or even a key would reveal a hidden wealth of dust, copper wire and silence.
And one day he was gone.
“Where did he go, mom?”
“Probably just wandered off.”
The landscape of a child’s world is made of many strange things, some of which become the ghosts of adulthood. Every time I pass that Japanese restaurant, now full of light and rice paper, I imagine him reclining still and listening on his radio for a song I’d never hear. I remember his coke-bottle glasses and ragged sleeping bag, the way he never smiled. I will remember him and that New York City forever, no matter how many times they pave it over with boutiques, restaurants and strollers. My fingertips will always recall the difference between a subway token and a nickel from the way they felt in my pocket.