‘We are not doing nothing’: Tompkins homeless

A man slept on a bench in Tompkins Square Park two weekends ago, when the police observation tower was still posted in the park.   Photo by Gerard Flynn
A man slept on a bench in Tompkins Square Park two weekends ago, when the police observation tower was still posted in the park. Photos by Gerard Flynn

BY GERARD FLYNN  |  With the sun beating down a few minutes before 11, Sunday morning in Tompkins Square Park a couple of weeks ago couldnt have been more picturesque. As usual, there was a pocket of homeless folks who have made the leafy shade by the chess tables near the corner of Avenue A and E. Seventh St. their perennial home.

Most sat drinking all sorts of stuff, cooling off under the trees, listening to transistor-radio music. But one beat red (and very high) transient down from Harlem was attempting to venture far from the madding crowd, perhaps to a vacant seat on nearby Crusty Row, which has been suspiciously empty in recent weeks of its typically blitzed “travelers.”

After spying his intentions, two eagle-eyed cops, parked in a car outside the New York Police Department’s surveillance tower near the Krishna Tree, drove their cruiser into Saidaziz M.’s bodhisattva path, blocking it, before enlightening him, as he sat strung out on one of the sunbaked benches, that he wasn’t welcome.

“You can’t stay here. You gotta move on,” one cop pointedly told him. The man somehow managed to haul himself over to the railing, where his mouth opened involuntarily and managed to deliver a hardcore cocktail of vomit that made both cops turn away and cringe.

Within minutes, backup arrived and with six of New York’s Finest breathing down his neck, Mr. M. somehow managed to make it back to the chess-table benches where he curled up comatose under one and waited as the cops called the paramedics.

With soda and sandwiches in hand, do-gooders from #Hashtag Lunchbag, however, got to him before the EMS medics, their voices rousing him like a Pavlovian bell.

Another man sleeping on a bench in Tompkins Square Park.
Another man sleeping on a bench in Tompkins Square Park.

And while the man sat there squirting ketchup on his sandwich, one volunteer, Bryan Kellar, denied the homeless population amounted to any kind of threat.

He affixed the “blame” for the N.Y.P.D. tower on reports from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which has been running articles about transients’ bad behavior in the park in recent weeks.

“The homeless population,” he said, “is not that different than it has always been. It’s fine.”

A man dozes in a sitting position with his luggage nearby.
Dozing in a seated position with luggage nearby.

Karen, who declined to give her last name, has been living in the neighborhood since the 1980s, and remembers when the park was a veritable homeless encampment known as “Tent City.” That’s before a “police riot” in August 1988 cleared it of many of its occupants.

The homeless population since that highpoint, she said, has been fluctuating, but she is “seeing far less now.”

“It shrinks and expands over the years but this is small,” she said, looking around her at the few who were there with chess pieces.

She quizzed the six cops for their opinion on the observation tower and learned its presence was for surveillance purposes and some.

“They were trying to say that the community wants it, but they know it’s not the community,” she said of the police. She speculated that a meek mayor was throwing the N.Y.P.D. brass a bone and also wants the homeless shifted out of the high-profile East Village spot.

“There are too many homeless people in the park,” she said a white cop told her, even going so far as to accuse them of dealing drugs. Meanwhile, she said, a minority cop speculated that the tower was permanent “until there is pushback in the media.”

There was pushback, but from the community not the media, in the form of a petition and a “campout” protest planned for this weekend, which is still on. After slightly less than a week in the park, the tower was removed on Tues., July 28.

Another man sleeping on a bench in Tompkins Square Park.
The chess tables in the park’s southwest corner have always been a hangout for the down and out.

Due largely to drug addition and mental illness, “Diego” has been homeless since 1998. He was filling his shopping cart as the commotion around the chess tables continued. Would the tower drive the homeless out?

“No,” he said, adamantly. “We are not doing nothing anyway. A lot of people bring us food.”

He called the police tower “funny.”

“It’s senseless to put a gun turret in the middle of trees,” he said. “Who can you look at?”

While the homeless were having their fun, with one hiding a can of Rolling Rock brew behind his duffle bag as he B.S.’d cops, a veteran of the United States homeless crisis was sitting quietly hunched over another table, two luggage bags by his side.

Tyree Isabel, a retired military veteran, was almost inaudible as he described a life spent almost entirely on the streets or in the shelter system since leaving the Armed Forces in the early 1970s.

He hails from Kansas and said that in one month — with the help of a Union Pacific Railroad pension bequeathed to him from his father — he was hoping to return to his home state and spend the rest of his days renting a single room there.

He didn’t seem to mind the sun as he smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes and sipped his hot coffee, one hand curled up into a fist on the chess table and looking severely disfigured from a nightmarish skin disease. All of his family is dead, including his mother and sole sibling, his sister, who he lived with in the 1960s when he went to school in Jamaica, Queens.

He didn’t seem too sure why he came to New York City of all places, having left a state hospital in Indianapolis one month earlier, arriving here by Amtrak, but he was sure he would be leaving.

Not a regular at the park, he was not sure where he would be staying that night.

“On the streets,” he said, “or in the shelter.”