It was dark as night when I stepped out of my Harlem apartment building this morning around 6:30; but a deep blue - almost cerulean - color filled the atmosphere twenty minutes later when I emerged from the Herald Square subway station at thirty-third and sixth. I was early to my seven o’clock meeting, thankful that I would have some time to sit and talk with Joe.
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He was sitting up in his usual meditative pose atop scattered newspaper advertisements, looking blankly, soberly, into the distance.

“Good morning, Joe!”

He quietly returned the chipper salutation, then coughed heavily from somewhere deep in his chest into his hand. Surely he would understand if I didn’t shake. He cleared his throat and spit onto the sidewalk.

“You feeling ok?”

“Yea, I’m alright.”

I noticed that his shopping cart was nowhere to be found. He had a large green suitcase instead, the kind with tiny wheels and handles that pull out and break easily (I believe the economic term for this is “planned obsolescence”). He also had what must have been originally intended as a small wagon, a white-washed wooden toy. I could not tell whether it was even his, as it did not seem to be anything that would be very useful to him. His sleeping bag was covered with aforementioned newspaper ads.

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There was a bucket “for food” and another KFC bucket containing a peach liquid which – and I can only assume – consisted primarily of saliva and mucus. These all appeared to be recent additions to his once-modest habitation.

Hardly any more words were exchanged before a NYPD patrol car pulled over a few feet from us. I ignored them, but they must have spoken something to Joe which he didn’t quite make out.

“Sir?” He asked respectfully.

“You can’t hang out here.”

As Joe stood up and began gathering his belongings, the patrol car rolled off as quickly and quietly as it had appeared. My authoritarian antipathies began to flare. I have found Joe at this corner every week for the past six months. Who is this officer to tell Joe he doesn’t belong here? For lack of a home, this is Joe’s home.

I looked on pitifully as he packed, opening his suitcase and stuffing various garments, a notebook, and other possessions into it. He was unable to fit his pillow, which had been lying on the bare concrete, so he zipped the bag, stood it on its tiny plastic legs, and wedged the pillow between the handle bars.

“What’s with the newspaper advertisements?”

“They help keep my sleeping bag dry… and warm.”

Indeed, the mid-October climate is becoming rather cold. I would imagine it gets pretty frigid at night. He swept the large paper ads to the side, pulling out his sleeping bag and squeezing it in with the pillow.

He then pulled the tiny wagon near to the suitcase and tried to consolidate them, hoping to fit latter into the former. The wagon was too small and would not likely have lasted long under the weight of the suitcase; so the wagon was left behind, along with his KFC spittoon, and newspaper ads. I gazed at his habitation nostalgically, tragically. His habitation seemed so much dirtier, disorganized, and grossly empty without him in it.

I offered to help carry his things, but he insisted on taking care of it himself. With one hand he pulled the rolling suitcase behind him. With the other he held his food bucket and a canvas grocery bag. I walked with him to the corner of thirty-third and fifth.

“Where are you going to go?”

“Just a few blocks up.”

“Don’t these guys know you live there?”

“He must be new.”

I gently put my hand on his shoulder as we parted ways, wishing him a good day. I know he’ll be alright, he seems to be resourceful and shrewd enough to survive, even outside of his niche; still, I had better see Joe in his same old sidewalk spot next week, sitting in that meditative pose, staring off into the sky, thinking about God-knows-what. Or else so help me…

 


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