Whenever I saw him, I’d think: There goes the hunchback of Atlantic Avenue. I’d always see him on the same corner, day and night, fair weather or foul. He reminded me of a goblin. Sometimes, he was sweeping leaves in front of the deli, the furniture store or the funeral parlor. Sometimes he was asleep on the sidewalk, next to a pile of empty milk crates. Sometimes he was so high on something, heroin, I think, he lurched from corner to corner, oblivious to the rest of the world. High or straight, his spine was permanently curved, bent over. One day, my dog Molly insisted on saying hello. I acquiesced even though he seemed scary. Little by little, however, I got to know him.
We became friends. When he isn’t high, he is very sweet. He is charming and considerate. Always has a kind word, loves Molly. When he’s high, I ignore him. I don’t think he recognizes me anyway. I asked around the neighborhood, and found out that he was once a prosperous man living in the Bronx. He owned several grocery stores, was strong armed into money laundering. He got caught and ended up in prison. Lost everything. He acquired a drug habit. I don’t know how he made the trek down to Brooklyn Heights, but suffice to say, he became a neighborhood fixture. I did find out however, how he survives.
The owners of the deli, the furniture store and the funeral parlor (and perhaps others) look out for him. Hire him to sweep or shovel. Buy him lunch, hot coffee on cold days, offer him a place to sleep out of the elements. He seems to be a junkie that people trust. As crazy as this sounds, I would trust him, too. Despite everything, he is a good man. When I heard this story, I thought, who says compassion is passé or New Yorkers are heartless? Don’t say it to me. I know otherwise. Would it be better if he went into rehab, got a job, got off the street? No doubt. Will that happen? Probably not. At least he has found a make-shift home for himself on Atlantic Avenue, amongst people who are kind. People who look out for their neighbors— no matter how that word is defined. I don’t think of him as the hunchback of Atlantic Avenue anymore, now I know him by his name.