In the late sixties, my ex and I lived in what is now South Street Seaport on the entire second floor of a defunct seaman’s hotel. There were five empty floors above. We illegally payed rent to the tenant on the first floor, a man with a business that never opened.
Our only neighbors, a young hippie couple, were blocks away squatting in a three story building. It was my first exposure to this rent free option. They made a silver deck off the second floor where she, a tiny young girl from Connecticut, grew pots of thriving herbs for her makeshift kitchen. One morning, Daniel, the boyfriend, brought over a fresh bluefish wrapped in The New York Times that he had seen a dock worker steal and stash. With only a cooktop at their building, this dark and brooding artist designated me to cook his fish.
It fed ten hippies a memorable feast, it was the first time I used dill, and for a couple of hours, I was the queen of the evening, an event that turned me into a cook.
Not long after the bluefish, late one night in pouring rain, someone pounded on the garage door that served the non-business below us. My ex went down and returned with the Connecticut girl, dripping wet. Through sobs and shivering, she described Daniel as a schizophrenic and announced that she was moving back to her hometown. “Just one night,” she pleaded, as she put her soggy bag of worldly possessions on the floor. I quickly got her a towel, made a plush pallet for her, worried that Daniel would pound on the door next, and we all went to bed.
“Oh, these sheets,” she said from her position below our iron bed, “they feel heavenly. We never sleep on them. Daniel thinks they’re unnecessary.” My heart broke in two for her deprivation of the simple luxury of clean sheets.
Almost twenty years later in 1987, after moving from, then back to New York, I made friends with a bunch of bicycle riders. Once a week, Rolling Thunder took to the streets, from neighborhood to neighborhood, exploring and generally promoting mischief in which we would need to ride away quickly with a person of authority, like a night guard, yelling at our backs. That’s when I saw Daniel for the first time in all those years: on one of those rambling bicycle nights. He looked raggedy but well preserved; in fact he hadn’t aged at all. As we flew by him, it was his brown eyes that were most recognizable. I didn’t stop because he was behind us in a flash, there were many people with me, and I had harbored his departing girlfriend years before.
In 2009, I was crossing Central Park, going from the Museum of Natural History, past the Swedish cottage, Shakespeare Garden, up around the castle, above Turtle Pond, on my way to the east side. I had been doing this for months, three times a week, on my way to see a client at the Carlyle Hotel. As I came down from the castle, there sat Daniel, apparently homeless, with a neatly packed red wire cart at his side, reading The New York Times, and smoking a cigarette with a sand bottom ash tray next to him on the bench. Speechlessly, I speed-walked on, thinking maybe I would talk to him if I could think of what to say.
Stroll after stroll, I saw him, virtually unchanged except for a few gray hairs and a slightly receding hairline that gave him an air of aristocratic countenance. I thought he must have a family that cares for him in spite of his lifestyle, because he consistently read The Times in a clean shirt and sports coat. One day on the way to the Carlyle, I decided that if he was still there on the way back, I would stop and reintroduce myself. In my head, the exact language cycled through.
An hour later, on the way out of the hotel via Madison Avenue, I heard someone screaming ‘No, no no,’ over and over again. Pushing the door to the outside, the NO’s came from a man holding his head, marching back and forth where I stood. He was crying. The foreman of a construction project he was responsible for everything. The jaws of a bulldozer had just come down on an unnoticed jaywalking pedestrian. The elegant victim, a mere 20 feet away, was gracefully sprawled, a flying seventy-year-old very fit dancer performing rond de jambe en l’air. But he was on the ground, gray and lifeless.
I quickly left the scene, weaving blindly through throngs of horrified people. As the foreman’s NO’s became fainter, I hit the park where I started to run and weep for the man who lost his life in one moment’s careless act, something most people do frequently, I thought, without serious consequences.
Daniel still sat on his bench. Only able to express grief and fear I breathlessly ran past him as hard and fast as I could go. He was never there again. But that doesn’t mean we won’t cross paths in the future. Our separate threads of life seem to be strung in the same loose cloth, destined for another brief juncture. If that happens, whether or not I talk to him is to be determined.