There’s a man outside my building. Every day. Well, almost every day. He lives there. I don’t know his name because we’re long past the point where it would be polite to ask. His shopping cart, loaded with pots, pans, and various bagatelles, is perpetually chained to the fence at Laguardia Corner Gardens like a steed to a hitching post. The man has knee-length braided dreads he somehow manages to pack into an impossibly long beanie that looks like a dragon’s tail. Every day he can be seen reading the newspaper, listing to Spanish-language news, and smoking his pipe–our very own Greenwich Village Gandalf–though something tells me he wouldn’t appreciate the comparison.
What’s his story? Why’s he out here? What little rumors I’ve been able to collate form a sketchy portrait: unreconstructed hippie living here for many years; has a rent-controlled apartment somewhere in the city but chooses to live out there, in the little alley formed by the lovely community garden and the pigeon poop-stained grimy back windows left facade of our 24-hour Morton Williams. He might be an artist. Or just a derelict living off the tax payers’ dime. Storm Sandy is about the only time that I recall him not being there. His entire encampment was gone for several days. Sometimes he leaves for a day or two, in bad weather, whereto I know not. He never asks for money–or food.
When I see his familiar bearded face, the creases of experience in his sun-burnt face, I kind of like thinking of him as a sage and mysterious vagabond smoking rare tobacco and meditating on matters beyond the comprehension. Unhindered by workaday routine and the mundane preoccupations of New Yorkers he watches over us, protecting us with his watchful gaze. But that illusion was sadly broken on occasions when he was clearly wasted, one time even flirting lamely with my girlfriend in mumbled Spanish. Even Gandalf likes to tie one on. Maybe he’s more like us than I know. Life is hard, apartments are small. Every one of us finds their own way of getting through the day. Our watcher has found his. I still wish I knew the full story, and maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to ask. For now, I’ll enjoy that comfort of confirming his presence there as I walk home from work, grocery bags in hand, and nod at him every once in a while. After all, some mysteries are worth preserving.