Sylvester and Beany
by Rob Hunter
“The streets are healthier than the shelters. If you live.”
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.
—Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
The year the monarch butterflies didn’t return to Maine, I went home to Brooklyn. “Something in the milkweed,” they said. With a cold winter and a long flight from Mexico the butterflies weakened and froze, dying in their millions. Almond eyes pouchy with sleep denied by fever dreams of avarice and the night sweats of free trade, latafundistas and tin shanty dwellers alike wondered at the deaths, but with never a thought for Maine or for me. A preoccupation with the exigencies of day-to-day survival will do that. Greed will do that. Starvation clears the mind. I was busy too, and forgot the butterflies.
In New York the monarchs got bumped to the inside pages. A bewildered teenager stared from the Post, News and Times. Amy Fisher, Lethal Lolita, had shot her boyfriend’s wife. The wife survived and was mightily pissed; the butterflies were dead and didn’t care.
The old neighborhood hadn’t changed much. Between Hoyt and Smith Streets two wings of the former P.S.6 boxed off an enclosed courtyard. Over the years the neighborhood elementary school became a Jr. High, the Nathan Hale Middle School, then Board of Ed administrative offices in the Eighties. A sign to that effect covered up the “Public School 6” carved in stone over the entrances where boys and girls lined up on opposite sides for attendance, games, and fire drills. The youngest of the kids who last lined up for attendance called their neighborhood Red Hook or South Brooklyn and were middle-aged by now. That was at the front, on Baltic Street.
Meanwhile, we enjoyed a rear view. In our iron-fenced front yard the size of a queen-sized bed, the mimosa tree had added two inches to its diameter while I was gone and in Maine. The crackheads, smackheads, winos and other hard-living citizens, the reason for the fence, were gone, dead like the butterflies or moved to Bushwick where they competed with George W. Bush and Amy Fisher for the front page. Across the street a line of shopping carts blocked the loading dock of P.S.6. Sometime in late March a homeless man, Sylvester, set up camp out back near the coal chutes. Twice a week ashes were hauled away and polluting soft bituminous delivered under an easement from the Department of Environmental Protection.
Although children no longer go to the neighborhood school, the Board of Ed blacktopped the playground for parking to discourage ball playing just in case. No cars today. In the summer a fife and drum corps from the Keith Dominion House of God Church practiced their fancy footwork. Evenings a Dominican softball league commanded the grounds. On a Brooklyn morning I looked out through feathery mimosa leaves from our fourth story windows. A kid passed by running ahead of her sisters, a little girl all dolled up in Sunday finery. Daddy catches up. “Elsie, didn’t I say to wait?” A voice gruff with pride and distraction. A child’s giggle and a whacked bottom. Instant tears of expected surprise. A grunt and a hug from Daddy. Giggles again. The neighbors haven’t caught on to the Board of Ed’s master plan and continue to have children anyway.
A tall, tightly knit black man in his forties, Sylvester scrubbed the school steps with chlorine bleach. He was singing and talking to himself as he worked. “Gettin’ down at Morey’s, tha’s the place where Louie dwells. Louie. How they hangin’ today baby?” The Whiffenpoof Song. The householder is alive and well. Yale prospers.
During the yuppie bubble of the eighties the real estate muse tagged our neighborhood “Boerum Hill” with the same commercial poetics that had coined “Tribeca” and “SoHo” over the river in Manhattan two decades earlier. Our street, Warren Street. Our neighborhood, just off Smith Street and near downtown Brooklyn.
Three days later I stood in the September sun with Ed Sweeney, a neighbor. Ed was recently certified as a drug rehabilitation and AIDS counselor and, during his time at John Jay College, had picked up Sylvester as a practice subject. Eddie himself can’t get a job; the field being overcrowded. As we watched Sylvester at his household chores, another man, wearing an overcoat too warm for the day, executed a zigzag path across the street from our side to Sylvester’s, dodging oncoming traffic. There was no oncoming traffic.
“Cecil and Beany. Like the cartoon.” Beany was Sylvester’s satellite, a garden-variety psycho, a drunk and a doper―whatever he could get. His higher cognitive functions had been blown away with nose candy and alcohol. In our neighborhood amateur psychiatric social work was something we all did, a hedge against getting your hubcaps back when they wandered off, which was regularly. You paid a ransom, but it was cheaper than replacing the lost items.
Eddie flashed a hard look at me, this man was important: “I’ve been working on him. If he gets half a chance he’s gonna make it―Sylvester, forget Beany. He’s not really nuts, just does a lot of dope. And booze. He’s off the hard stuff.”
“And he’s not a cartoon. I get it. Sorry, just trying to be cute.”
Eddie is my age, tall and broad at the shoulders, a scrupulous bather and frequent washer of his long chestnut hair which sticks out in a ponytail through the back of a Bud Man baseball cap. In the summer he sits out on the fire escape and dries his hair with his wife’s hair dryer, cigarette dangling from his lips. Eddie sported a Pancho Villa mustache, and an easy smile framed his perfect teeth—dentures. His natural teeth were the casualties of charity dentists, soft food and hard liquor. Eddie had done his time on the street and in prison before turning his own life around. He got his night school diploma two years before, college the hard way. He will make a good drug abuse counselor.
“I am corrected. Didn’t mean to trivialize him. Does that clear the air?”
Eddie brightened and changed the subject. “You haven’t seen my new tattoo. Hey, look at this! Always room for one more.”
He gave his arm a quarter turn and made a fist, pumping his triceps. An intricate floral pattern wriggled. “Got it in Virginia Beach at Julia’s summer school.” His wife teaches English Lit. at Brooklyn College. “Sylvester, our very own homeless. He’s clean―scrubs down his doorway with chlorine bleach. And Beany...” Eddie registered displeasure.
Beany had a home on the block. A tenuous genetic trail linked him to Mister Johnson, an elderly man who owned a row house and presided over an assortment of cousins, daughters and their children and spouses in varying degrees of gainful work and public assistance. Beany laughed a lot for no apparent reason, but like him or not he belonged here. Beany had people, homefolks on Warren Street and was regarded as a natural feature of the terrain, a pothole to be driven around. Sylvester was the stranger on our block.
Pilferage and casual vandalism decreased with Sylvester’s arrival. He had been welcomed. He hated the druggies and annoyed the hell out of them, which did not completely explain his relationship with Beany. The crack heads and their dealers struck a nerve with generally civil and well-spoken Sylvester. Their presence brought him scrambling over his barricade of shopping carts spewing invective to heaven and earth, haranguing the sky, appealing to an unseen audience past the footlights of a stage only he could see. He danced around the street dealers, warming the air with a torrent of abuse. They all carried guns and were quick to imagine a slight. However, a surviving etiquette of the old time Italian gangs required direct eye contact for an insult to be a killing offense. Up, down, and all around, he never looked directly at them. Sylvester lived and the junkies left. Except for Beany.
Beany watched Sylvester’s stuff while he was away getting more. Sylvester was a collector of bottles, clothes and handouts.
Two weeks in New York, and it was time to go; the last resume had been passed out. Eddie volunteered to drive me to the station. After four years in Maine, I felt safer parking in Connecticut and taking the train into town. A sanitation truck was pulled up to the back steps of the Board of Ed Administrative Building along with two uniformed cops and a blue and white. Eddie’s stepdaughter was watching the operation, Supervising Princess of the Works. She struck a pose and chewed at her knuckles. Liza was seventeen, an age when knuckle chewing is more endearing than neurasthenic. “They’re busting Sylvester.”
So they were. Where was Beany?
“Somebody filed a complaint.”
The cops looked alert and bored at the same time. Meeting no resistance from the neighborhood, they lit up. One of them fished a container of coffee from the dash of the patrol car.
“Hey, that belongs to somebody.” Eddie.
“This shit yours?” Cop.
“No but he’ll be right back.” A shrug from the cops. Just doing the job. They’re not yours what do you care. The shopping carts, eight of them full of cans and clothes, toppled into the garbage truck, the hydraulics kicked in, and they were crushed.
“Hey. I thought New York was supposed to separate metal and glass for recycling.”
“In the case of a sanitary nuisance we make an exception. Go figure.” A page was initialed in a leather notebook and the lid snapped shut. The police snuffed out their butts, and their car followed the sanitation truck away to the next complaint. They had cleaned Sylvester out.
We chucked my gear in the car and Eddie started the engine, then turned it off. “I want to watch this.” Beany was shambling along the opposite side of the street, trying to look casual. He held a can in a paper bag and drank through a plastic straw. Sweat beaded his forehead, and his shoulders jerked spasmodically; he was going up or coming down. He noticed us in the car and flashed a smile.
A lone shopping cart approached across the playground. Sylvester just stood looking at those empty steps. “Where were you, man?”
Beany broke up in giggles. He was tickled. It was over; whatever bond there had been between them was canceled. Beany danced away, laughing at a joke no one else had heard.
Sylvester turned to us. “My double down. They got that too.” A prized goose-down coat, scavenged, set by against the winter to come, was gone with Sylvester’s carts. It would be a thin winter, a winter out-of-doors. We took up a collection. Three dollars, enough for two pints of fortified wine―Night Train, Mad Dog, Jive 7.
Triple-parked on 42nd Street in front of Grand Central Eddie said, “He was getting his act together, now he’ll have to go to a shelter, get beaten up and robbed. The streets are healthier than the shelters. If you live.”
We had our collars up against a stiff crosstown wind. I thought about getting the plastic banking up against the house in Maine. We shook hands. Eddie peeled away west under the Park Avenue overpass and I caught the New Haven for Bridgeport.
copyright 2008, 2019 Rob Hunter
Sylvester and Beany was written for the 2008 short story collection Lost in Willipaq. The events occurred in 1993 and are mostly true; the story describes my farewell visit to Brooklyn and New York City, different places with a bridge stuck in between as old-timers will agree.