Soon after moving to Canal Street, to the area now known as Dimes Square, I would hear a man in the night shouting, "Hup! ... hup!... hup!" There would be a few seconds between each eruption and would continue for hours. Sometimes it sounded as though the man walked west, maybe as far as the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge, but usually he stayed around the intersection of Eldridge and Canal.
The man making "hup!" sounds, occasionally punctuated by an indecipherable sentence, has been going on for almost three years. It is the case that area can be a little populated by street people; we had an encampment on the northeast corner of Eldridge and Canal for more than a year, built up by Neal (who, maybe because I once gave him some homemade cookies, would always greet me with, "Hey, mama") and Kristen - I know their names because I asked - who had her share of meth sores though one morning I did see her in a surprisingly unsoiled evening gown, but they and their many broken possessions have moved to a shadier area in a nearby park. The hupping man, I did not ever encounter; he was out of eye range the few times I looked out the window at 3am to see who was making the sounds, but I always thought how exhausting it must be, to be bound to a Tourettic impulse that had a person shouting the same sound hundreds if not thousands of times a night.
I saw the man for the first time about eight weeks ago. It was 6am, and he was walking back and forth on my block, between the bodega on one end and the firehouse on the other. He was a black man, of indeterminate age but not too old, dressed in dark clothes, not clean but not raggedy. He was not gesticulating. He carried no possessions. He walked back and forth for several hours making the same sound before situating himself by the bodega, where, because my desk is by a window that overlooks the street, I heard him continue for several hours more.
I might add here that the sound is not annoying. It's not overly loud, and it's not menacing. The thing it inspires in me is sadness, that this man is captive to this. I've started to wonder if he has a place to lie down, to keep clean, to use facilities, if anyone checks on his mental health, if he has family that wonders about him.
I've been not in New York City much the past few months, and when I am here, I am reminded how unquiet the streets are at night, the firetrucks next door ringing into action at any hour, the partiers from Dimes Square drunk-screaming at 3am, the bridge traffic and people fighting. The hupping man, by contrast, is almost lulling, a lonely sound for a few hours before dawn, never in concert or in conversation with anyone.
This morning around 9am, I had just poured myself coffee and was checking another fire escape plant I'd failed to grow when I saw the man. He was slumped in an orange folding chair across the street and, instead of there being few seconds between each “hup!” there were a few minutes. The sounds were very faint. He had been doing it for hours and I thought he must be exhausted. I also thought I should bring him an egg sandwich. But should I? But if not me, who?
I poured the coffee into a travel cup. I put some scrambled eggs on buttered toast and wrapped it in foil. I grabbed a bottle of water. When I got downstairs, the man was no longer there. There was food detritus on the sidewalk next to the orange chair, including a Popeye's chicken bag so maybe the man was getting some care. I left the drinks and sandwich on the chair and decided to cross to the bodega, which is when I saw him. He was on the corner, not making the hup sound but guttural noises. I could see now he was a large man, maybe 6'3", 200 pounds, dressed in a sort of Mad Max/motocross-style and making noises that were, maybe, meant to keep people away. Well, I thought, we're both human beings. I grabbed the food off the chair and crossed directly to him, which is when I saw he had on some sort of full-face mask and a baseball cap, so that all you could see were his eyes. He was younger than I imagined, maybe 30, with long dreadlocks. He kept up with the noises until he realized the woman in the cut-off shorts was crossing directly to him, which is when he went silent. I stood right in front of him and watched his eyes get wide, he looked shocked and then, afraid.
I handed him the water, the sandwich, the coffee; he took each looking at me, and I could be wrong, but my impression was that he interacts with others only very rarely, which makes sense; he is a large man making loud sounds in the middle of the night. But he took the breakfast easily, an easy transaction.
Back in my apartment, I saw he'd crossed the street, he was back in the chair, chewing an egg sandwich and drinking coffee from the only travel mug I had, given to me by Bill Schulz during an oldest-bars-in-New-York tour, and now reintegrated into the city.
It's an hour later and the man has gone wherever he goes during the day; I did one time hear him further north in NoHo, and thought, then, he has his rounds. I'm not sure what else there is for me to say except that he was more startled to encounter me than I was him, which makes sense, seeing as I've known him for years.
After reading this beautifully crafted piece, I was reminded of E.M. Forster: "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." Thank you for sharing this small moment of connection.
You are such a lovely writer.