Sam, Sam, the homeless man
Essay by Marte Previti
New York City, December 30, 2000
For the past few years I have been observing and reflecting on the unusual movements and behavior of the person who has become identified in my thoughts as the 'hermit of Mount Tom'. Today's snowstorm, still in progress, and undoubtedly to be described in future as the Blizzard of the Millennium, finally gave me the incentive to start penning the tale which has been incubating in my mind for so long. When I looked down at Mount Tom at 83rd Street in Riverside Park this morning through the haze of hexagonal ice crystals falling and softening the details of this familiar landscape, my eyes instinctively turned to the spot where I check daily on the status of the mysterious individual who is the subject of this essay.
For a lifelong inveterate voyeur, my vantage point high over the Hudson River, with an unimpeded view of almost 180 degrees, from north to south, has permitted me to survey the myriad activities taking place in the park and on the river. Mount Tom, a relatively smooth and gently sloped peak of micaceous schist directly below my windows, however, has always been the focus of my attention and closely scrutinized through the lens of my collection of optical instruments. Edgar Allan Poe, who once lived on 84th Street, often visited this rock and may have derived inspiration there. In any case, when I first arrived here, in 1970, Mount Tom became for me a living theater. There is hardly a facet of human behavior that I have not observed intimately, from explicit sexual activities of every description, and in broad daylight, through parties, photographic sessions, picnics and even voodoo ceremonies and other cult rituals. I soon realized that the protagonists of these performances were oblivious of the fact that a large, unseen audience existed, concealed behind those picture windows high above them. After the advent of the AIDS epidemic, however, the titillating sexual encounters virtually ceased and the rock became overrun by nomadic members of society, some of whom lingered until ejected by the police. The fine efforts of the Riverside Park Fund and its volunteers have restored and rejuvenated this beloved park, and homeless persons are quickly evicted.
Everyone is homeless in one sense or another, most of us without realizing it until we are compelled by circumstances to resort to introspection in a search for the solution to a difficult personal problem. Using myself as an example, I can recall my first experience with a precursor of homelessness, homesickness. As a 23 year old chemical engineer I signed a contract with my employers in 1934 to spend three years as technical advisor in their Buenos Aires branch office. As I had been stuck in a menial lab assistant job at the salary of $10.- per week, even after receiving my degree from Cooper Union, this promotion was my liberation from this trap, and gave me financial independence. $250.- per month permitted a young bachelor to live high on the hog in those days in Argentina. Travel to Buenos Aires from New York was an 18 day voyage on the SS Southern Cross, with stops at Bermuda, Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Montevideo before arriving at B A. My co-workers in the laboratory were as excited as I was and came down to the ship en masse to wish me bon voyage.
My last memory of that day before Mothers' Day was that of my mother weeping on the dock at the thought that she might never see me again. I had never left home before nor ever traveled farther than a few hundred miles so the romantic prospect of voyaging to a foreign land stifled any misgivings that I may have harbored.
Once at sea it was the equivalent of an extended South American cruise for me and I made the most of it, partying with congenial fellow passengers and viewing exotic sights. The denouement came upon arrival in a strange city on a cold, wet winter's day, knowing nobody, not speaking the language, and with the realization that I would be faced with unknown problems that I had been dispatched to solve. I was suddenly engulfed by the most severe and unpleasant feeling I had ever experienced, homesickness. I just wanted to get back on the Southern Cross and go home regardless of the consequences. The feeling remained for weeks and eventually diminished to the point that I could ignore it, helped along by the mandatory weekly letters we exchanged. However, I had become a "homeless" person for the ten years that I spent in South America, interesting and pleasant though they were.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 impelled me to return to the U.S to volunteer for military service, resulting in another temporary period of homelessness as a U.S. Counter Intelligence Agent in Germany capturing Hitler's atomic bomb scientists, for which I was awarded the British Empire Medal by the King of England. During those hectic years, I saw an unimaginable number of involuntary homeless people of all ages and nationalities, created by the actions of a megalomaniac and his mesmerized supporters, and the inevitable retaliation by those attacked. During this infamous epoch in world history I experienced homelessness from varied aspects not least of which was the fate of the masses whose homelessness segued into lifelessness.
Which finally returns me to the subject of this story. Imagine, if you will, a 'homeless man' who has a home, and right beneath my windows, where he apparently has taken up permanent residency. Technically speaking, Sam has a bedroom, albeit al fresco, on Mount Tom, to which he repairs each evening, bringing with him the artifacts which will protect him from the elements and assure his comfort during the night. These consist of large sheets of corrugated board, readily available in an upper Westside neighborhood where deliveries of new refrigerators are a common occurrence, an armful of newspapers, and a large plastic sheet to cover everything. Over the years, Sam has settled down to a fairly fixed modus operandi and sleeps in his carefully chosen spot, head to the East and feet to the West, in all types of weather, even when the predictions are for extremely cold temperatures or heavy rain.
I have viewed the construction of his bed with fascination as it involves a carefully planned series of steps which takes at least a half hour to complete. First comes the positioning of the cardboard rectangles in layers interspersed with newspapers to provide insulation from the damp earth. Next he removes the overcoat which he wears, even in summer, and stretches it out, folding it precisely to prevent lumps. Then he opens his large suitcase which contains an unbelievable assortment of articles, all neatly stowed, and takes out a bedroll to cover the overcoat, followed by a blanket. In between go sheets of newspaper, to provide additional insulation. During this process, Sam walks around to inspect the installation, making occasional adjustments until he is satisfied with the result. Then, closing the bag, he positions it, standing as a headboard, and finally, places an open umbrella over the case, to shield his head from stray raindrops which might penetrate the plastic tent. At this point Sam removes his trousers, revealing a second pair beneath which, I suppose, serves as a substitute for pajamas. The first pair is rolled up in newspaper and becomes his pillow. He then dons a heavy jacket and is ready for bed. The final step is the overall covering, a large sheet of transparent plastic which had been carefully folded in a small plastic bag. Spreading it out and anchoring it under the suitcase at one end and the cardboard sheets at his feet, he leaves the South side open into which he crawls. Strangely, he does not attempt to use the bedroll in the normal manner, perhaps because it would be impossible to enter it after the bed was set up.
When we first began to observe this strange gentleman, we were intrigued by the fact that he was not a panhandler nor a ragpicker but was a fixture in our neighborhood who kept to himself. Sam is of medium height, black as India ink, possibly in his sixties and the antithesis of the usual concept of a homeless man. As he has frequented our area for several years he must have had other places to sleep, such as local basements before he took possession of his current address. During the day he can be seen walking about, always impeccably dressed in a suit with a shirt and tie, shoes shined, an overcoat in all seasons, and usually wearing a tightly wound bandanna around his head. Seemingly, he has an extensive wardrobe which he alternates frequently. His source of income is unknown. He may subsist on a pension, or receive public assistance but I have never seen him soliciting. Invariably he is pulling a luggage carrier on which he transports his belongings in a large suitcase or box which also doubles as a headboard and a backrest for his makeshift bed. He is reserved and keeps to himself. I have passed him often on the street but have never tried to speak to him although I have sometimes nodded to him in greeting, receiving a curt, unsmiling nod in return. In fact, I only recently learned his name from my super who sets aside discarded clothing from the building to pass on to Sam, as do other kindly people, which explains the variety in his dress.
Being human, Sam does eat and drink like the rest of us but until recently I could only guess at his arrangements in that direction. I did see him once seated on a bench on Riverside Drive with a paper bag from a fast food emporium but it was not until one evening before sunset when he had settled down on his cardboard pallet that my curiosity was amply satisfied. Sam was enjoying a leisurely repast but until I focused my high-powered Meade spotting scope on the scene I could never have imagined the variety in his diet. On this occasion he started with a slice of pizza, followed by sliced salmon and matzohs which he washed down with spoonfuls of Aunt Jemima syrup and raspberry jam. He also had a small hero loaf of bread, partly moldy, and a container of some sort of salad which he spooned on the slices. A box of Entenman's cake sat alongside him. Judging from this incongruous combination of items, I suspect that he accepts donations by local shops. I do believe he has limited funds for his own purchases.
Sam is an avid reader of the New York Times in addition to his other uses for the publication. He enjoys browsing thru the various sections after his evening meal. With my trusty telescope I can even read over his shoulder and have detected him perusing even the obituary pages. It is obvious that he keeps up with daily events while enjoying a post prandial cigarette. Incidentally, Sam has good vision and does not wear glasses.
There are many reasons why people become homeless, usually involuntary and due to unfortunate circumstances. Sam, on the other hand, appears to have chosen this mode of life for other reasons. His personal habits indicate that he was not raised in poverty. I was told by a doorman that a number of years ago Sam was a promising student who was befriended and taught by one of the residents of our co-op who gave seminars in journalism but I have been unable to verify this or to obtain further information.
As an early riser I have been able to spy on Sam, himself an early riser, from my vantage point, and have become familiar with his daily routine. When he awakens he likes to enjoy a morning cigarette, propped against his case before proceeding with his toilette. First, he wipes his face vigorously with a towel, then applies cream and lotion, next carefully combs his tight curly hair for several minutes and brushes his teeth, all performed before a square of broken mirror held in one hand.
He sleeps fully clothed and his changes of garments occur at this time. To my amazement one morning he opened up and donned a freshly laundered shirt. Even more improbable, in his beautifully organized case, he has a tie box and a jewelry box! Often he wanders around our neighborhood sporting a pearl necklace. On a more mundane level I have occasionally observed him defecating on a newspaper (The New York Times), then carefully disposing of it. In short, he is very fastidious, and even vain, hardly traits found in the average homeless person.
Thru an amusing incident I discovered a valuable fount of information which filled in some of the gaps in my observations and conclusions about Sam's life style. A local liquor store holds wine tastings on Saturday afternoons which I normally pass by but out of curiosity one day I entered just in time to witness the owner trying to ease out a small elderly lady who apparently had overstayed her welcome and showed no signs of becoming a buyer of any of the vintages she was sampling. My entrance provided the distraction which interrupted the operation and gave her the opportunity to engage me in conversation. I don't recall the details but somehow Sam's name came up and she revealed a few interesting facts about him which intrigued me. After leaving the tasting we continued the dialogue and I learned that Betty (her surname is omitted for obvious reasons of privacy) is a 75 year old widow, a retired nurse who has lived in the neighborhood for a number of years, and was herself a homeless person until she was taken into a building supported by the Catholic diocese as a shelter where she has a tiny studio, and supports herself partly by taking care of and walking dogs.
Betty told me that she met Sam about 12 years ago. He then lived in a S.R.O. hotel on 85th Street but was forced out when it became a co-op, and has been homeless ever since. She tried to get him into a Jewish shelter but he refused. She used to give him a weekly allowance of $25 and occasionally prepared meals for him. Sam is from the South and used to work for the New York Times according to her. He has ingratiated himself with people at Lincoln Center who permit him to use their facilities to bathe himself. Other facts which explain his hermitlike behavior are that he has a phobia and panics when he is exposed to a group of more than two persons. For instance, he won't enter a restaurant except in early morning when no else is there.
Another facet of Sam's behavior which never ceases to astound me is his ability to remain inside his bed, motionless, for up to 16 hours at a stretch. Having previously seemed very regular in his daily habits, arising early, cleaning up himself and his surroundings before leaving to do whatever he does during waking hours, the first time we noticed that he did not get up but remained under his coverings the entire day, we feared that he was ill or possibly had passed away during the night, and alerted the police to investigate. Soon, we realized that this was a recent development and that we should not be alarmed at this deviation from the familiar routine. I have a theory that Sam has discovered the secret of self-hypnosis which enables him to pass away the hours and conserve energy like a hibernating bear.
Sam is also a dedicated environmentalist. When he leaves his spot on Mount Tom each day, there is not the smallest speck of evidence that anyone had spent the night there. His clothes and bedding have been carefully folded into the box, and the cardboard and newspapers gathered into plastic bags for deposit into nearby trash baskets. Not only does he collect his own litter but he picks up the debris left behind by other visitors with a lesser sense of responsibility. Mount Tom is always cleaner when Sam leaves than when he arrives. This civic duty is not limited to Riverside Drive, however, as he picks up litter wherever he wanders through the neighborhood. I have even seen him pick up a dog's deposit which the owner had lawlessly abandoned. Sam is a good citizen.
In view of the repeated reports that New York would receive more than a foot of snow starting last night, of which Sam was undoubtedly aware, I felt certain that he would find an indoor shelter to spend the night. Imagine my amazement this morning to see a mound covered with snow indicating that Sam had not deviated from his routine and decided to occupy his own bed despite all. What an example of the triumph of the spirit! I have just checked again and the mound is hardly visible under the growing thickness of snow. Judging from past observations, Sam is likely to remain under his multiple layers until the storm ends or the call of Nature forces him to seek relief.
December 31, 2000
Early this morning when I looked out, the storm had ended. Sam had already departed leaving behind a hole in the snow about six by eight feet and at least four feet deep. The snow had drifted high above him during the storm, burying him alive, and it must have been a scary experience as he pushed his way out of the icy tomb. Undeterred, Sam had already prepared his bed for New Year's Eve by enlarging the hole so that it resembles a topless igloo, and storing his belongings under the plastic sheet to await nightfall. Meanwhile, in a departure from the norm, he is going about his daily business, unburdened of the pull cart which would be difficult to maneuver over the icy sidewalks. I have never encountered a more self-sufficient and undemanding individual in my long experience, which is a sweeping statement for one who becomes a nonagenarian this year. Sam, you are a good role model for those who need an example of courage and ingenuity to help them carry on in life.
Happy New Year, Sam.
January 1, 2002 - Happy New Year, Sam
When I penned this greeting to Sam on December 31, 2000, I did not intend to continue adding to the record although I had accumulated a few more interesting observations during the year 2001. My essay is basically free-standing and although a reader might be left with a mild feeling of curiosity as to Sam's future activities I felt no compulsion to expand a story in which I had lost interest. I no longer peered down on Mount Tom as my first action upon arising each morning, and by the time I remembered to check, Sam had packed up and left for the day. For this reason I failed to note the exact date when Sam decamped permanently from his longtime abode, but I suspect it was soon after the infamous events on 9/11, although I have no way of confirming that.
I speculated whether his absence was due to medical problems but seeing him walking around the neighborhood as usual in apparent good health dispelled that theory. It was obvious that Sam had found a superior location for his resting place. I haven't stumbled upon it yet nor does it matter. Unless some unusual circumstance warrants a reconsideration, my involvement with Sam is a closed chapter.
Good Luck, Sam.
Used by permission of Sam Avery and the author and photographer, Marte Previti.
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