A guy has fallen on hard times, huddled under gentrified tenement stairs; on one side his clapped-out shopping trolley bound by trash bins and black cast iron pickets. The stairs span from streetside pavement up to an ornate doorway, moulded guardian face glowering overhead.
He seems in his 60s, but his real years are anyone’s guess. One day I ask, but my question is met with a non-committal nod of his grey face and averted blue eyes. The voice is a low cigarette-drenched rumble, sentences broken with a retching hack of a cough.
“Yeah, times are not so good buddy; rents are steep.” There’s a raspy sigh of resignation. “It’s still home though.” He peers up and down the street and waves a bony hand. “I know every alley, and every dry spot in this town.” This time the cough seems a little self conscious. “I moves around a bit.”
His name is Frank. “Like the singer,” he croaks. “You know, as in Sinatra.” I’m thinking more Tom Waits in a ratty leather cap with ear flaps.
We’ve been here for 2wks now; our plan being for a white Christmas and New Year in the comfort of a designer apartment. Passing Frank most nights, we sometimes offer food leftovers, always accepted – remnants of New York dinner serves far too big – pizza, Hungarian meatballs, the occasional doughnut or giant cinnamon pretzel.
It’s New Years Eve and we grip throwaway cardboard cones in gloved hands, munching on the sweetest red strawberries pre-dunked in dark chocolate, ambling on 5th Avenue en-route to Times Square. We’ve an early evening play booked, followed by finger food and drinks in a `Warming Lounge’; all planned 6-months previously, pre-empting our anticipated entry to the legendary Times Square Ball Drop viewing.
By 11.30pm we’re on the street; apparently with no pre-arranged Ball Drop viewing areas, and spending News Years Eve on an otherwise empty Subway carriage back to East Village.
Turning off 2nd Avenue, our steps echo close to home now, the air is chilly; street lamps a dull golden glow. Our steamy breaths dissolve in damp night air. My whiskered face is cold, but I’m warm in my mandatory hiking boots, woollen cap, Windstopper jacket, scarf and thermals.
There’s the distant bleep and whoop of police cars towards Alphabet City. I pause for a moment. There’s a stirring off to one side, a voice from the gloom seemingly insistent, laboured but loud. “Hey buddy!”
I freeze for a moment, with sudden flashes of an East Village that once was; a rough and tumble place of ramshackle squats, risks and rougher times. I’m so close to the voice, I smell wet wool and cigarette smoke; but really, there’s no need to worry.
He’s hunkered down in blankets and plastic sheets; Frank’s voice deep and worn as always. “Happy New year,” he says.