He was an Army veteran, age 76 and in failing health, who some 20 years ago became homeless. And last year, his troubles grew even worse.
As he slept in a city park in July, someone stole the bag containing all his belongings, including his ID. Stripped of papers that identified him, he was unable to get the $1,400 a month in Social Security checks that had long since fed and clothed him.
He tried to restore the benefits coming to him — chiefly through conversations with the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs — but to no avail. He got a runaround, all because he had no ID — no birth certificate, no military discharge papers, nothing to prove his existence.
“You have to prove who you are,” they would say.
“But my ID was stolen from me,” he would answer.
It was a classic catch-22. Around and around in circles he went. Every time he asked for a hand, he confronted a different person and had to start from scratch.
I’d seen him for decades around Forest Hills, where I live, but never spoken to him. I knew he was homeless, mainly because he seemed to be around day and night. Yet he always looked clean and freshly dressed and struck me as decent and approachable, with no hint of mental illness. And I never saw him ask anyone for money.
Last year I introduced myself to him — his name is Arthur, but everyone calls him Artie — and heard his story. It turned out he was born in Forest Hills. He grew up off Metropolitan Avenue, near Eddie’s Sweet Shop, and graduated from Forest Hills High School. He was drafted into the Army, the infantry, in 1967 and stationed in Germany for 18 months.
Artie worked for most of his life, he told me, as a doorman and bellman in hotels and apartment buildings in Manhattan and Queens, holding jobs at a Hilton and the Helmsley Hotel. He lived in a basement apartment in Rego Park. Eventually he became homeless, but says he’s unsure why. He admits it’s because he was “stupid” — and that “things went too far” — but declines to explain.
“I wish I could give you an honest answer,” Artie told me. “Maybe I just got down on myself.”
Since then, he slept overnight mostly on benches in MacDonald Park and the Continental Avenue subway station. He refused to stay in city shelters — too dangerous. He had no family around anymore — his parents and two brothers gone — nor any friends.
At the time we met, he’d gone four months without the opportunity to take a shower. Good Samaritans from the neighborhood who knew him — such as Brian Crook, a former mailman and friend for 30 years — from time to time gave him food and a dollar or two for clothes and maybe a haircut.
“I’m used to being hungry,” Artie told me. “You can get used to anything. I learned that in the military.”
He was stuck. He was missing teeth and his hair was straggly and he had lost weight off his already-slender frame and now walked with a pronounced limp. Doctors had diagnosed blood clots in his legs and deteriorating bones. He’d recently undergone operations on his feet.
“I need that Social Security check,” Artie told me. “I just want to get into a veterans’ home. And I don’t want to be buried in a Potter’s field. I want to be buried with other veterans. I served my country and want to go out with my country.”
Before the pandemic, nearly 92,000 people in New York City were homeless. That number has grown, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Lost jobs and inability to pay rent due to the pandemic will lead to evictions and swell the homeless population, especially out on the streets. Already I see it here in Forest Hills.
Now Thanksgiving has come along again. I never see Artie around anymore. Who knows what’s happened to him? Maybe the coronavirus got him. Or he’s sleeping on a bench in the subway somewhere. I recently reached out to the VA about him, but received a note saying its policy about patient privacy prevented it from telling me anything.
For now, I’m keeping an eye out for him.
Meantime, I like to imagine the VA taking care of Artie, his identity no longer at issue. This Thanksgiving he’ll be in a room of his own, complete with a bed, bathroom, window and TV. He’ll have enough food to eat and clothes to wear and doctors to protect his fragile health. He’ll be seeing out his last days in peace, home at last.
Bob Brody is a consultant and essayist in Forest Hills and the author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”