Monday, May 1, 2017

A Young Homeless Man's Death in Riverside Park Leaves a Void; 'I Wish I Knew His Name'

The bench near Pier I where a young homeless man would often sit, until he vanished one day.
He was always there. The young homeless man in the maroon hoodie, always sitting bolt upright on a Riverside Park bench – sometimes at 75th Street, other times near Pier 1 CafĂ© at 70th – his big canvas rucksack near.
He said almost nothing. No requests for money or food. No murmurs to himself or invisible interrogators. His gaze seemed steady, as did his strong walk – all six-plus feet and 200 pounds of him, occasionally spotted on Broadway peeking into garbage cans or picking up a free Metro paper to read.
He had neighbors who wondered and worried about him. Food, clothes, magazines and money would be placed within his reach. After several such interactions, he might turn toward his visitor, meet their eyes and give a faint, quick smile. But he left it at that.
For going on four years, he was always there. Until he wasn’t.
Billy the Birdman on a bench at 75th Street favored by the man
“It took me weeks to find out what happened to him,” says Billy the Birdman, another daily presence at the park, an avid hawk-spotter who lives nearby on 76th Street. “I knew him better than anyone, saw him every day for years, but I never got him to engage past saying ‘yes, no or thank you.’ And yet I feel like I really lost somebody.”
According to Billy, park workers told him that the man in the maroon hoodie had been found dead several weeks ago in a fenced off area controlled by Amtrak under the West Side Highway near 71st Street, steps from the Riverside Park South Dog Run.
I asked NYPD and the Parks Department for verification. Though we cannot be certain it was the maroon hoodie man, NYPD confirmed that on the morning of March 9th an “unidentified male in his 30s” was found there, “seated on the ground, unconscious and unresponsive.” EMS responded and pronounced him dead on the scene. “The medical examiner will determine the cause of death. There are no arrests and the investigation is ongoing.”
The Office of Chief Medical Examiner told me that, “The person still has not been identified yet. And the cause and manner of death are still pending.”
Billy thinks the man he called ‘the homeless kid’ was more like 25 years old, but it was difficult to discern any specifics about him. He seemed healthy and strong. He had a full head of reasonably neat, short, wavy black hair, a medium complexion and features that were not easily categorized. Was he of Samoan or North African or Caribbean descent?
“He had no accent when he said any of the three words he would say,” recalls Billy. “I wish I knew his name. I want to say a prayer for him.”
Billy’s not the only one. WSR heard from several readers asking if we could find out about the man. Said one, “We’re all part of the life of the park.”
Whoever he was, he was likely not one of the 62,692 homeless people in NYC shelters each night. And if he was sleeping tucked up under the highway, the City likely didn’t count him in its annual HOPE census of street homeless people.
But to those who saw him every day, he did count.
First published April 5, 2017 in West Side Rag