There are many stories set in the city that people call the crossroads of the world; New York City stories are filled with drama, glamour, crime, the high cost of living, the bright lights of Broadway, the dirty streets, the rushing crowds and the callousness of tense, unsmiling people. All the stories, the good and the bad have a bit of truth in them. My hometown is a huge city with room for every kind of narrative.
Despite a population that exceeds 8.3 million people, or perhaps because of it, New Yorkers tend to form neighborhoods, areas similar to small towns within the mega city. Sometimes even we are family.
When I lived on the corner of Twenty-third Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, I often walked my German shepherd to Madison Square Park. A large dog needs as much exercise as she can get; so, we walked at least a forty-five minuets three times a day. The park was one of our favorite destinations because of the good-sized dog park; it did not take long for the “residents” of the park to accept my dog, whose name coincidentally was Madison Avenue, and me as regulars.
I don’t know how many of the destitute called Madison Square Park home, but there was this one man, who said his name was Bill, who stopped me one day, invited me to share his bench and engaged me in political debate for an hour. His conversation and knowledge of the United States political scene was impressive. After that initial interview, Bill waited for me every afternoon.
Unlike many of the homeless men, Bill never asked me for money and if I dared offer him any he would refuse it. He was soft spoken, had impeccable manners, and an extensive vocabulary that challenged mine. This man who lived on the streets read the New York Times religiously every morning and then he waited for me to visit in order to discuss and often debate the hot-topic issues that were on his mind. According to his friends, after our spirited conversations, Bill would then indulge in spirits of the alcoholic variety, but that allegation I can neither confirm nor deny because I never saw him in an inebriated condition.
One October afternoon Bill was waiting for me at his usual bench. He looked upset. The New York Times was scattered all over the bench and his belongings were piled around his shopping cart instead of being neatly packed and stacked inside the basket, as was his custom. I asked him what was wrong.
“You are late!” Bill had never raised his voice in my presence before.
“I was busy this morning.”
“I was waiting for you.”
“I am sorry.”
“There is so much going on. So much. Sit down! We have to talk about what this crazy Congress is doing.”
“Bill, I haven’t yet read today’s paper.”
“You did not read the paper?” Bill pointed his shaky finger at me as if in accusation; his nails were long, yellow and dirt encrusted.
“I was busy. Look, on the way home I’ll stop at the newsstand, get the paper and we’ll talk about it later. OK?”
“No! Not OK. That will be the afternoon edition. I want you to read the morning edition and now it is too late. Too late!”
“I’ll ask for the morning edition, Bill. Calm down.”
Bill paced the length of the bench; he scratched his long, wiry beard and tugged at his clothes. “You need the morning edition, the morning edition, the morning edition. Don’t you understand?”
People were staring at us and moving away from the bench. “Hey, lady. Is everything all right here? Is this man bothering you? Shall I call the cop?” An angry looking jogger glared at Bill.
“It’s OK,” I replied hastily. “We don’t need a cop. Right, Bill?”
Bill agreed as he kicked at the fallen red and yellow leaves. “No, we don’t need no fucking cop.”
“Hey! Watch your filthy mouth!”
The jogger punched at the air in front of Bill’s face. My German shepherd growled at the jogger and displayed her formidable fangs; Madison did not like loud voices. “Hold your stupid dog!” the man yelled.
“Sorry! Madison, heel!”
Bill looked down at the autumn leaves and said nothing. The crowd dispersed; the jogger continued his run. With the excitement contained and the immediate area quiet, Madison curled up again at my feet.
“Look, Bill, I have to go now. Sorry about the newspaper.”
“It’s all right. No, wait a minute. Wait!” Suddenly, Bill started picking up the scattered pages of the newspapers on the bench.
Seeing Bill busily cleaning up his bench, I smiled and thought the small crisis was over. I started to leave.
“No!” he yelled. “Wait a minute, just a minute. Don’t move!” He worked feverishly, smoothing the wrinkled pages, putting the newspaper back into numerical order, matching the sections.”
“What are you doing?”
Minutes later Bill had reassembled the early morning edition of the New York Times except for the front page of the business section, which after a quick search of his clothes, he found inside his shirt.
“Here,” he said proudly, “The only parts missing are the classifieds and the sports; you don’t need them do you?”
“No,” I stammered, “No, I don’t.” I really did not want to take that newspaper from him.
“Good. Now, you don’t have to stop at the newsstand and have to settle for the wrong edition.” He held out the paper for me with one hand and scratched at his bead with the other.
“But that’s your bed, Bill.”
“Please, take it,” he said. “It’s a gift from me to you. A gift.”
I looked at the dirt-encrusted hand circling the early edition of the paper, his dirty, stained pants and I watched Bill scratch at his beard. Suddenly, my head itched; I could feel little tiny legs running up and down my body. Images of body lice, head lice, fleas, and every other kind of chewing, blood-sucking parasite flashed before my eyes. I shuddered.
My friend waited for me to take his gift, smiling proudly.
I reached out for the early morning edition of the New York Times. “Thanks, Bill. I appreciate it. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, tomorrow. I can get you tomorrow’s paper, too, if you want?”
“That’s very kind of you, Bill, but tomorrow I want to be ready for our talk. I’ll get the paper myself, early as usual.”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding his head. “It’s the best edition.”