There Was a Crooked Man

Remember that nursery rhyme? There’s one such man in the neighborhood where I work. Rather than the crooked mile of the nursery rhyme, I see him every couple of weeks walking the gentle curve of Clinton Street.

He’s not merely hunched over. He’s bent 90 degrees at the waist, his arms pinned behind his back, his hands clutching a collection of plastic grocery bags filled with something or other, bouncing along against his thighs with every step. He does not look up. All he seems to see is the ground just a few feet in front of him. He wears a dark gray, slightly tattered suit. His hair is gray and frizzy, and he has a longish salt-and-pepper beard. I have no idea what his face looks like, but his skin looks like it gets too much sun. Usually he just wanders here and there. He is always alone.

Walking back to the office from another late-afternoon coffee break, and enjoying the unseasonably warm mid-autumn weather, I saw him again today. I used to think of him as just another eccentricity of the Lower East Side. There are so many. But today I was alarmed to see that there was something more to him than I had assumed. Today, he was drooling.

Great copious amounts of saliva were pouring from his mouth. Maybe his nose. I couldn’t tell, and I’m not sure it mattered. He was walking in front of me, and we were headed in opposite directions. As we neared each other, I could hear him making a sound. He wasn’t speaking, as far as I could tell. With each step forward, his torso, bobbing from the motion, pushed short bursts of air out of his lungs, creating a sort of rhythmic moaning. His drooling, of course, followed the same rhythm. He was flowing all over the sidewalk in front of him in an unbroken stream. It was extraordinary.

I wondered if he was uncomfortable. Would he appreciate a Kleenex at that moment? Was he sick? Was he crazy? Was his back severely damaged or deformed? or did he walk this way by choice? I could tell he had some groceries in his bag — so clearly just recently he had interacted with someone to make a purchase. Unless he was carrying it from wherever he lived. How might it be to talk to this guy, I wondered. How does he get the money to the cashier if he can’t stand up straight? How lonely he must be. Lonely and covered in his own spit.

There’s a crooked woman in the neighborhood where I live. I see her a couple mornings every week on my way to the 7 train. She routinely takes her life in her hands by standing in the middle of 82nd Street. She stands there, her face buried in her sweater, clutching an extra-large Duane Reader bag stuffed with something or other. usually her head is covered by a hood, so she has no peripheral vision. Drivers will slow their vehicles on approach and
carefully pass around her. Sometimes, she’s walking slowly down the middle of the street, making it a harder to judge clearance.

Sometimes I see her standing in the elevated train station. She has no apparent intention of passing through the turnstile and boarding the train, but she is safe at least and away from passing cars.

She looks intensely unhappy. Her face is constantly screwed up as if she just ate a spoonful of earwax. I can’t imagine what she is up to.

I wonder if someone takes care of these people and whether they’re homeless. If so, how do they survive? When I see them, is it because they’ve wandered away from a safer place? or are they always unsafe and alone in the world?


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the untallied hours

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