Jesus it’s cold. Mostly I don’t feel it, but after last night my butt is frozen to the stairwell and the three hats I have on don’t even take the edge off. I’m still tired when I wake, my cheeks pinched by the frosty morning air. It was a hard cold night and it was too damn noisy to sleep properly.
I found my spot early, just after dark, tucked away in the thin line between two apartment blocks, on a fire escape someone had forgotten to push back up. Just when I thought I was gonna drift off there were the bangs, about seven of them, like a car backfiring or something. Then the sirens – more than usual – and people shouting and running along the street. I couldn’t ignore it. I opened my eyes and turned my head to the end of the alleyway. Blue flashing lights flickered up the road and the water smeared walls and bulky shapes with jangling keys darted past. Something big must’ve kicked off alright, a shooting I guess. But it all died down pretty quickly, besides, it had nothing to do with me, and once I’m hunkered down I don’t move until morning – it’s the only way to keep from freezing. Every night in winter I pull my sleeping bag up to my neck and stow my most precious belongings on my lap, hug ‘em tight, and then I don’t move an inch – not unless I really have to.
This part of town is usually quiet enough, even at this time of year, just three weeks short of Christmas when the world has gone seasonally insane and crowds fill the streets day and night. It’s less frantic up here, the office parties all go downtown and the fruit loops and the junkies tend not to come up. If I can find the right spot I can sleep safe and sound all night and be up early enough to catch the rich folks on their way into town. It’s not that they’re especially generous up here, though there’s a lot of money about (bankers, celebrities, folks that have everything they could want) but still, you can beg for hours and not even get a glance. Every so often I’ll get lucky and someone will remember the spirit of Christmas, and they’ll salve their conscience by digging deep in their pockets. If this happens I’m set up for the day – a couple of hot meals and a bottle, maybe even a bed someplace. Course, it doesn’t always happen. It didn’t happen yesterday; which is how come I’m waking up on a fire escape after a restless night, tired and cold.
I get up, stretch, and wriggle the pins and needles from my toes. I roll away my sleeping bag, stuff it into my biggest carrier, pick up the rest of my things and shuffle out of the alley and along the sidewalk to the corner of 71st Street and the park.
There are a lot of people about today. Too many and too early. It’s a little short of 7 but it feels like it’s well into rush hour. Everyone is going in the same direction – north along the park – like they’re being called by something. I stand still to cough as the exertion of the day’s first steps catches up with my lungs. People jostle me as they pass as if they can’t see me, spinning my shopping bags so the handles twist like knives into the skin of my fingers. I had a pair of gloves but they were stolen in the last shelter. I cough thick gunk up from my chest and splatter it onto the sidewalk.
As I start to walk again I notice that everyone is silent. It’s eerie. Some folks walk together holding hands, some are carrying flowers. Their faces have a haunted look – like children in wartime. I walk along with them and for the first time in years I’m just one of the crowd, suddenly a part of something (even if I don’t know what it is yet). I can feel myself smile, using muscles that haven’t worked in months.
A woman crosses quickly in front of me, I don’t see her until it’s too late. She recoils as I crash into her. My bags are knocked out of my hands, falling at her feet, the contents spilling onto the floor.
‘Watch it mister,’ she hisses.
I look up from her spike heel as I try to gather my belongings. Her legs go on for miles and she’s real pretty, but her make-up is thick and dark roots are showing under her bleached blonde hair. There’s a hole in her black stockings, just below the hem of her leather mini-skirt, exposing a circle of bright white skin. She’s got a faraway spaced-out expression, looking over me across the street as if I’m not even there. I remember the type.
The memory makes me smile.
‘Okay princess,’ I say, straightening up.
She stares at me as though she really is a princess and I’m an insolent peasant. As she takes in my appearance her face is transformed by sudden anger. Her blank pretty features contort and she narrows red-rimmed eyes.
‘Fuck off,’ she shouts, almost screams, ‘you stink.’
Her words echo like a shot through the still December air.
People stop and stare at us. I’m not part of the crowd anymore – now I’m a bum harassing a vulnerable woman. I know what they all think. I hunch my shoulders and drop my eyes to the sidewalk until I’m sure she’s gone, and then I cross the street to where Cyril Patel has his pretzel cart.
I see Cyril nearly every-day, he’s one of the good guys, and I’m glad he’s so close. It looks like business is good for Cyril Patel but then it usually is. He must be the only Indian pretzel pusher in Manhattan; it’s a novelty and people like him cos he’s always smiling, showing off his yellow tombstone teeth like he has the best job in the world. Once, when I passed him in a snowstorm that was smothering the city in a cotton-ball blanket, and he greeted me with his usual huge grin, I asked him how come he was always so happy.
‘Things could be worse,’ he said with a giggle, his brown face almost entirely covered by a fake fur hunting hat, ‘things can always be worse.’
Things could certainly be worse today; even though it’s only a little after seven there’s already a huge queue snaking along the park railing. Across Central Park West a crowd spreads out from the doorway of the corner mansion, spilling in clusters onto the road. West 72nd Street is blocked to traffic by two patrol cars parked nose to nose. A cop leans on the open door of one speaking into a walkie-talkie with a stern expression, the metal on his cap and shield glint in the sun. There are other cops dotted around the crowd trying to control everything and achieving nothing. News vans line the left hand side of the street, stripes of red white and blue with little satellite dish hats; each has its own reporter and cameraman, the same scene repeated over and over like the hall of mirrors at Coney Island. The reporters hold microphones out for people to speak into. I can hear the low rumble of voices and the insistent caw of car horns frustrated by the hold up along the park, yet at the same time everything seems un-naturally quiet.
‘Hello Jimmy,’ says Cyril as I get near. He’s sweating despite the cold.
I nod and sit down on the sidewalk beside his cart. I take off one of my hats and set it down in front of me then I take the cardboard MERRY CHRISTMAS sign from my inside pocket and lay that in front of the hat. You need a sign. Without a sign you’re nothing. Just the word Christmas gives you an identity, something for folks to latch onto; otherwise they don’t notice you at all and simply walk on by as if you are vapour on the sidewalk. This one’s made from the lid of a shoebox I found outside Macy’s. It had shoes in it too but they were too small.
I look up at Cyril.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask.
He works like an octopus, blasts of hot salt air billow from the cart as he opens the top to take out the fresh pretzels. He carefully wraps one in a napkin and holds it out to a wispy girl at the front of the queue wearing a hippy coat.
‘Some nut-job shot John Lennon,’ he says without looking back down at me.
On hearing the news spoken aloud the girl sobs. Her long-haired boyfriend puts his arms around her and kisses the top of her head. They turn and walk away – too distraught now for pretzels.
I rub my beard. The smell of the salted dough makes my stomach rumble.
‘What? Last night?’
Cyril nods. ‘Around midnight. I got here at five – the place was already swarming. All lit up with candles like Diwali.’
He breaks from his work just long enough to hand me the unwanted pretzel and a coffee.
‘Well,’ I mutter, ‘that explains the noise.’
I eat quickly, without tasting. The coffee is too hot to drink, but it warms my hands as I look at the feet tramping the frosted leaves on the sidewalk.
All morning I sit next to Cyril Patel’s pretzel cart and watch the heartbroken at the Dakota Building, as they lay flowers on the steps, light candles and scrawl messages in chalk on the walls. Every so often part of the crowd starts to sing and the sound rolls from one end of the street to the other then it’s quiet again.
They say if you can remember the 60s you weren’t there – well all I can remember is being out of it, so I guess that’s true. I spent most of it in a psychedelic whirl of drugs and sex and rootlessness. It’s not the sixties anymore, and now I’m nearer sixty than twenty. A song starts in my head.
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grave
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
At eleven o’clock Cyril closes the cart lid and says, ‘I’m out.’
The queue lets out a collective grumble and merges with the crowd.
I have just one dollar ten in my hat.
‘Hey Cyril,’ I say, ‘do you have a pen?’
He stands by as I write, looking at the pilgrims across the street.
‘He was a good man,’ he says. ‘He never once walked by without saying hello. One day he said to me, ‘I’ve always liked the Indians Cyril, they’re so much better than the cowboys.’’
Cyril’s impersonation is so good several people turn round to see if John isn’t still with us after all. He laughs and mouths ‘sorry’ to the disapproving faces.
I show Cyril my sign.
MERRY CHRISTMAS – WAR IS OVER
‘Good,’ he says in his normal voice, ‘you should do better now.’
He takes a twenty out of his top pocket and drops it into my hat. I watch him push his cart away along the park and turn left through the first set of gates until the black skeletons of the trees hide him from view. It only takes a minute but when I look back down at my hat I have three more twenties.
Image is of Central Park, 1934, oil on canvas by Carl Gustaf Nelson – Courtesy of Cliff