I could hear the howl from three blocks away. This was, in part, because to get to work I must walk through canyons formed by the wall-to-wall skyscrapers of lower Manhattan– and canyons echo. It did that rare and unusual thing in this jaded town; it elicited a response. My head lifted, as did the heads of the pedestrians around me, because it was the saddest sound I have heard in a very long time.
When I reached the source of the noise, I saw him, a tall homeless man with ragged hair, his back arched so that his entire body looked like a taut bow. His face was upturned and he was still howling, repeating that bone-chilling noise that I had heard before. A porter stood with him, with a hose in his hand, pointing at the cardboard box that was the source of the contention.
Each morning, I see this porter washing the sidewalk. He works for a building with posh apartments; so posh that the rent is $4,000+ a month. While sidewalk cleanliness is desirable, a large part of why this is done is to make people sleeping on the sidewalks move somewhere else. It’s part of what their clientele is paying for.
But the porter was begging with the man. “Take your cardboard box, it’s okay, just take it and move it over there. I have to wash the sidewalk.” It’s hard to know what was going through the head of the howling man, but he would not. Perhaps he was just crazy; mental illness and homelessness are often combined. Perhaps this was the fifth or tenth or fiftieth time that he’s been told that he’s not wanted in the place that he’s occupying. Maybe it wasn’t about the box at all. Or maybe it was because this box was the one thing he owned and here was a man with a hose, about to destroy it. The edges were already wet. I could see the cardboard breaking down.
It has been a few days and I can still hear the timbre of the howl in my head. It wasn’t a scene that was easy to forget, if only because I know it to be one that plays out every morning all across this city of money. This, more than anything, is New York to me. On the same corner as a building with housing only accessible to the wealthy lies a man with nothing more than a cardboard box to his name. Some may see this as a sin against big city living (like homelessness is just an urban vice), but here we are not protected from reality. We see every side of life, placed cheek by jowl. We are not protected by cars and distance and highways. But that doesn’t mean that we know what to do with it.
Just like everyone else, I did nothing but hope that the howling man finds some peace and a place of respite, and wonder if there’s anything in my life that I value so much as that man valued his box; a piece of trash for me and the porter, but for the howling man — shelter. Home.