Monday, October 8, 2018

UPDATE: Young, Homeless Man “Stephen” Who Died in Riverside Park Identified; Family Found by Local Journalist

--> Originally published September 25, 2018, in West Side Rag

Neil Harris, Jr. in a 2010 family photo
Back in April of 2017, I wrote about a young homeless man who was found dead under the West Side Highway near 71st Street in Riverside Park.

Many community members mourned the quiet man in the maroon hoodie, a park fixture known to some as “Stephen.” A memorial plaque soon appeared on “Stephen’s bench” near 75th and Riverside. But his identity remained a mystery, a John Doe, buried months later on Hart Island – the city potter’s field – plot 383, section I, grave 35.

Now, thanks to two determined women, we know who he was.

His name was Neil Harris, Jr., 32. He loved animals, cooking, video games, horror movies and reggae music. He hated crowds and feared change. He had learning disabilities, severe social anxiety and bouts of paranoia. He also had a mother, Susan Hurlburt, and a huge extended family who’d been worrying about and looking for him since he disappeared from the Inwood, Long Island, train station on December 12, 2014.

“He knew my number by heart.” Hulburt told WSR. “I thought if it got bad, he’d call me and I’d come pick him up. But I never heard from him.”

Hurlburt finally learned of her son’s fate thanks to recent efforts by Jessica Brockington, a journalist who lives on the Upper West Side (and has written for West Side Rag).

Brockington, like many locals, felt a connection to the man she’d often see while walking her dogs. She’d once offered him coffee and tomato soup on a frigid day. Upon reading of his death, she wondered how his family would ever find out – if he even had a family. She said a prayer and left the question unanswered.

Until this past August.

Brockington was busy reviewing several government databases, looking for information to use in a data journalism class she was taking through the Knight Foundation. On – a Justice Department site to help resolve missing and unidentified persons cases – she stumbled upon a missing person photo for a Neil Harris, Jr. “He looked just like the guy we knew in the park as Stephen,” she says.

That discovery set in motion six weeks of frenzied – often frustrating – detective work by Brockington.

She shared the photo with multiple Riverside Park denizens who also immediately recognized the man as “Stephen.”

She contacted NYPD’s 20th Precinct with her findings. Officers sent her to the Missing Persons division, where “Stephen’s” case had been transferred. Detectives there didn’t think she’d made a match, based on the medical examiner’s photos and a description of the body.

She persisted.

By this point, Brockington had already scoured Facebook and discovered Neil Harris, Jr. had a mother who’d been posting about him, requesting prayers for him, asking him to be safe. “There was a loving family besides themselves with worry,” she says. But Brockington felt she couldn’t contact them until authorities confirmed the ID. And they weren’t moving fast. 

Brockington says detectives in Nassau County – where Neil grew up and the missing person’s report had been filed – were more amenable. One detective decided to contact Hurlburt and ask her to get a DNA test done. But, not wanting to upset a mother needlessly if it wasn’t a match, he did not tell her a body had been found.

“There was no rush,” Hurlburt ruefully recalls. Now living in North Carolina on a fixed income, she says she didn’t have a spare $99 for the test and had no clue what the stakes really were.

Meanwhile, Brockington was getting impatient. She wanted Hurlburt to know the urgency of the matter. So she called Kenny Jarels, founder of the AWARE Foundation, a nonprofit that supports families of missing people, to serve as an intermediary. “On Facebook, I’d seen AWARE interfacing with Susan about Neil. AWARE had had posters made and she was sharing those posters on Facebook weekly,” she says.  “Kenny decided Susan needed to know that there was a possible match. So Kenny called Susan that night. And the next day I spoke with her.”

Once the two women connected, they were unstoppable.

Hurlburt immediately went on NamUs to inspect a tiny thumbnail photo of the unidentified man’s face taken at the medical examiner’s office. “I knew it right away. That was my son,” she says. “I’ve known him at 300 pounds and at 150 pounds. With dreadlocks and with a shaved head. That was my son.”

Hurlburt quickly arranged to take a DNA test at a local police station. But, unwilling to wait on results, she also contacted NYC’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner [OCME] to try to speed up the identification process. “After the third phone call, I got to a woman there who said we might be able to do it through Neil’s medical records. Had he had any broken bones?”  Neil had broken his arm as an adult; an injury that never fully healed. Hurlburt requested the hospital send his file to OCME for comparison with X-rays taken during the man’s autopsy.

About a week later, on September 21st, Hurlburt got the call from OCME. “They told me, ‘we can positively ID that this is Neil.’” According to OCME, he died on March 9, 2017, of an acute intestinal hemorrhage due to a perforated chronic peptic ulcer.

Hurlburt says she wants people to know her son had a kind heart, and a big Italian family who loved him. But Neil was also “a lost soul” who had run away once before. He told her he wanted to live on the streets. In addition to mental illness challenges, he had long struggled with his biracial background, often asking his mother, “What am I?”  His African-American father, Neil Harris, Sr., had had his own struggles and is also buried on Hart Island.

Hurlburt also wants her experience to help others avoid the “torture” of not knowing what’s happened to their missing loved ones. She says law enforcement and other authorities need to better respect families by treating these cases with greater urgency. “Homeless people are still people. If you have one lead on who these people are, you should follow up. Immediately.”

How Neil ended up in Riverside Park remains a mystery. He had no previous connection to the Upper West Side, says Hurlburt. He’d only been to Manhattan once in his life – to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree – and hated it. She has no idea how Neil managed to survive for over three years on his own. He could barely read or write and had no access to funds. “He didn’t know what to do with himself. So he just sat and stared.”

She suspects the kindnesses of Upper West Siders, “angels”, sustained him. “God sent all of you there then,” Hurlburt says. “And sent you now to make sure he rests in peace with his identity. That was the most important thing to Neil. I want to make sure he has a name, and isn’t just some number.”

Hurlburt is especially grateful to Brockington and hopes to meet her and others when the family comes to New York to collect Neil’s death certificate and personal effects. “She never stopped. This was a stranger. She didn’t have to go this far. And she did,” says Hurlburt. “This has changed my view on the world. There’s good people in this world. There are.”

“Connecting Neil’s family with the community of people who mourned his death has been really emotional but deeply satisfying,” says Brockington. “It’s one little piece of good, you know? I just wish it happened earlier.”

Friday, October 5, 2018

Talking with Anna Quindlen About Her New, Very UWS Novel and Why the Neighborhood Suits Her Down to the Ground

Quindlen on her UWS rooftop. Photo (c) Maria Krovatin

Originally published September, 24 2018, in West Side Rag

Stepping into Pier 72 diner, Anna Quindlen seems much like any other work-from-home writer on break. Eager for news, a laugh, some rice pudding with the decaf. Most of the day, she says, “I just sit and stare into the middle distance.”

Her résumé says otherwise. After working as a journalist and winning the Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times columns, Quindlen moved on to writing bestsellers, from memoirs to advice books to nine novels.

Her latest, Alternate Side, is set on a dead-end block on the Upper West Side, one with a tiny private parking lot that’s an enduring source of pride for those granted a space, and envy for those relegated to New York’s insane automotive dance. A block quite like the one where Quindlen lives with her husband, attorney Gerald Krovatin, and two Labrador retrievers. The couple has three grown children, one grandchild and another on the way.

Quindlen spent a recent hour talking about the novel, the fault lines running through many UWS lives and why nothing beats Broadway’s “great parade of humanity.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WSR:  Alternate Side digs into so many issues that obsess Upper West Siders – class, status anxiety, real estate, gentrification. What sparked the story?

AQ:  The initial impulse for the novel came because my elder son was reading Bonfire of the Vanities. It made me think how long it’s been since Tom Wolfe published that book. And how issues of race and class attach. Not only in this city but across this country. Now perhaps more than ever.

So I was a little surprised to discover what it turned out to be was a novel about marriage.

WSR:  Your 50-ish protagonist, Nora Nolan, and her husband, Charlie, feel so familiar.

AQ:  I think of them as classic, prosperous Upper West Siders.  Wealthy people live on 5th or Park or down in Tribeca. Prosperous people live on the Upper West Side.

WSR:  Changing perspectives hit Nora from multiple angles. She’s conflicted about her relationship with her marriage and with her city.

AQ:  And with herself. It’s not accidental that she has a completely different work life at the end of the book as she has at the beginning. She changes substantially. In ways that I’m not sure would be true, had the incident with the golf club not happened.

WSR:  That incident – an assault on a blue-collar man by a white-collar one – divides the block, upending peaceful coexistences. Do you think one incident can change how you see someone you’ve been with for 25 years?

AQ:  I don’t think the single thing changes it. I think sometimes something cataclysmic can magnify the differences that you unconsciously knew were there but refused to look at or acknowledge. You see it when empty nest syndrome happens…when serious illness strikes.

It’s not so much that that thing caused the schism. It’s that there were tiny cracks all along and that thing is like a teaspoon hit against the side of the vessel. Suddenly all the tiny cracks get bigger.

WSR:  Nora also has shifting feelings about New York.

AQ:  What Nora says over and over is that she felt more of an affinity for New York – and certainly her neighborhood – when it was grittier, harsher, harder. That it felt like someplace that was challenging her. Now she feels really settled in it. In a way that you’re not really supposed to feel in this city. You’re supposed to feel settled in the suburbs, not on Broadway.

WSR:  Do you feel the same way?

AQ:  I have a certain fondness for the grittier, crazier Upper West Side that existed when I came to college here. And when I was a street reporter here. But as a mother? As a property owner? I’m not so unhappy with things feeling slightly safer and more settled.

What I am unhappy about is when younger people and less prosperous people get pushed out.
The great thing about the Upper West Side is you walk up Broadway and feel like you’re seeing the great parade of humanity. You’re not just seeing people who can afford a pair of Jimmy Choos.

But fewer members of the great parade are welcome here or are prosperous enough to settle here now. I’m a big fan of rent control!

WSR:  Speaking of divisive issues…class and its power dynamics run thru Alternate Side. Among prosperous Upper West Siders, I’ve sometimes sensed this crisis of masculinity and of femininity, when folks interact with their contractor or their super or their nanny.  A person who enters their lives and has much more power than they expected.

AQ:  It’s certainly a major theme of the book. The people who are performing the tasks that – deep in your heart of hearts – you believe you should be doing yourself.

I don’t think it’s quite as strong among the men. But among the women, certainly I get a really powerful sense of that. Whether it’s the nanny or the housekeeper – that person upon whom you are so reliant, and who therefore has a kind of power that can make you uncomfortable.

The woman who might know things about your children that you don’t know. Who knows where everything is in your house. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable, but it can be.

WSR:  The denizens of Alternate Side’s block have some sharp personalities. Do you think there are particular character traits shared by Upper West Siders?

AQ:  I think of us as liberal, outspoken, nicer than people think we are. People can be really, really helpful to each other. Cliquish and clannish, too.

WSR:  How so?

AQ:  You just have this tightly woven tapestry of the neighborhood people. They’re your nabes. Maybe they’re not even people you know. But they are people you see almost every day. You know their dogs. They go to the same nail parlor. A few you know, but most you don’t – except by sight.

WSR:  But they’re still your people.

AQ:  Definitely your people. Suddenly, you notice when they’re not there anymore.

WSR:  After growing up in Philly and South Brunswick, New Jersey, you first came to the upper Upper West Side – Morningside Heights – at 18?

AQ:  Came to Barnard in 1970. And I would’ve stayed around here. But my husband and I got married and didn’t have much money. So we looked around for the place most like the Upper West Side, one where you could get cheap housing. And moved to Hoboken. I tended to think of the Hudson River as nonexistent.

In 1999, we moved back. Right after Oprah chose Black and Blue as an Oprah Book Club book. Which was not coincidental.

WSR:  Ah, windfalls…

AQ:  And we were both horrified, because we were convinced we were buying at the top of the market. Only to discover that the market had no top!

WSR:  19 years, then. A lot has changed…

AQ:  It changes in some ways, and in other ways it doesn’t.

WSR:  What are the eternals?

AQ:  Well, you walk past a place like Barney Greengrass and you think, by right, this should be an Armani Exchange. And yet, somehow, it’s not.

There’s this weird alchemy to the Upper West Side. Some places really stick. I’m convinced that if there was a nuclear disaster, Cafe Luxembourg would survive. And thank God for that.

WSR:  What’s your favorite part of the neighborhood? Beyond our spunky spiritedness…

AQ:  That is one of my favorite things. That odd combination of friendliness and non-intrusiveness. The neighbors who know how to say just enough, but not too much.

And Riverside Park. Poor Riverside Park! In any other city in America, it would be THE park. But because of Central Park, it gets overlooked. I’m a real Riverside Park devotee.

My grandson’s favorite place on earth – other than Nana & Pop’s house – is the American Museum of Natural History. Which is just as it should be.

WSR:  In A Short Guide to a Happy Life, you summarize your personal code as, “I show up, I listen. I try to laugh.”

AQ:  My work makes me sound so much more large and in charge than I actually am.

WSR:  You’re so together!

AQ:  I’m baffled by it. I read a quote from myself on Twitter and I think, did I actually ever say or write that?

When my kids were really young, and I’d be going to give a speech or something, I’d come downstairs in a dress and heels and make-up. My son would say, “It’s the Amazing Anna Quindlen Doll!”  And most of the time when I have to talk about my work, or look at my work, or think about what I’ve produced in my work, I feel like the Amazing Anna Quindlen Doll.

And that is NOT the person who populates the streets of the Upper West Side every day!

WSR:  Ha! Alternate Side’s paperback is out in November. What’s next for you?

AQ:  Nanaville will be published in the spring. It’s thoughts on grandmothering from a newbie nana.