How I Came To Adopt A Chelsea Homeless Person: Richard, the Red

For as many years as the Chelsea Waterside Park has existed, there has been a struggle to get a bathroom for it’s eastern portion. One is needed because the park’s unique design accommodates many villages of visitors. There are the competitive sports teams, both adult and youth that use the ball field and bleachers area, day and night. Parents, with children in tow, swarm the children’s playground and those with dreams of the NBA frequent the basketball courts. Then there’s the canine, with owners in tow, that use the dog run.

Except for the dogs, when nature calls everyone has a choice of a couple of port-a-potties or taking the long trek crossing the westside’s highway to use the facilities at Chelsea Piers.

The original plans for a bathroom, filed with the Hudson River Park Trust, were lost and, since,  the estimated costs of a bathroom have been explained as prohibitive. But when NY State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried recently allocated $500,000 toward a new bathroom, word of another village popped up —the fear of the homeless. It was said a bathroom would attract the homeless, something like bees to a hive. Being a Chelsea old timer, I’m used to living alongside the less fortunate, but today, I also now live alongside the more fortunate and was alarmed at this new anxiety.

Armed with ribs that I had burnt the previous night, I bicycled to the park to meet a homeless person and learn if their threat was legitimate.  As I arrived, I overtook a man with a limp, dragging a large clear bag of recyclable cans along the park’s promenade. He was heading to the western part of the Chelsea park, across the highway.

“Excuse me, sir” I said, holding out the bag. “Would you like some spicy ribs?”

He turned toward me, his eyes a darting like he was hungry for trouble, not food. He appeared as though he stepped off a Viking ship, his frazzled long red beard and hair framed a demeanor caked with nature’s indiscretions. He was holding onto the recycle bag and a cane like they were his battle axes.

“Uh?”  He said, sizing me up, as I sat on my bicycle, holding out a gallon-size clear zip-lock baggie stuffed with giant blackened pork ribs. He slowly he broke out into a smile, revealing very few teeth. “I love bbq ribs! It’s my favorite food!”

“There’s more where that came from.’ I said. “My name is Don. What’s your name?”

“Richard.” He said, letting go the of the recycles bag and taking the bag, inspecting the blacken food and exclaiming, “Hey, you know how to cook ribs!"

“Thanks. Might be too well done. Live up the street. What brings you to Chelsea?”

“I’m stuck here.” He said. “I was fishing on a boat out of Gloucester. After the season ended, me and a crew mate bought bus tickets to Louisiana to work on my friend’s shrimp boat. While in between changing buses at that station here, I went to off to get us two coffees. When I came back he was gone. He took my backpack too. It had my wallet and ticket.”

“Then how’d you pay for the coffee?” I asked, suspicious.

“With this,”  He said pulling out bank card from a frayed pocket. “Took it with me. He got all my other stuff, some pictures, letters and stuff. Even my ticket. Cheaper to buy a ticket to NY and then one to Louisiana, like stages, then just buy one ticket.” He said, suddenly turning dark. “Mark said he had family in Bayonne. I’ll get that guy, some day...,” He jabbed a fist forward, in anger.

“Well that sucks.” I said. “Hey, I’m a fisherman too. Sailor mostly.”

“Yeah? A sailor?” He exclaimed, warming up again, with a smile. “I’ve love the water!” He exclaimed. “Need to be near it. Get lost in that city over there. If you can’t see the sun or the stars ‘cause of all the tall buildings, you get lost. But being near the river, I know just where I am. It could use more trees though. Never saw a park with so few trees.”

“The park needs the sun. We have enough of shade that way,” I said, pointing back toward the city.

“You got that right! I get lost over there. Have no idea where I am when I’m there.”

“We’ll have to talk again.” I said, sensing that Richard had had a long day and was tired. “Tomorrow? I’ll bring some more ribs. Same time?” I asked.

“You can find me up on the hill over there. I like to watch the river flow,” He said, pointing across the highway to rim of hills that circled the park’s western grass bowl.

As we parted ways, I felt confident I would find him again. Thus started my enlightening experience of getting to know a homeless person residing in Chelsea Waterside Park.

The next day I found him laying under a tree atop the hill, just where he had said he’d be. When he woke up, I was met with big wide smile. He had loved the burnt ribs like there was no tomorrow.  I gave him a pair of old jeans, long johns, and a sweat shirt that I could live without. It was early spring and the nights were still cold. I brought another batch of ribs which he later found under cooked, but the new jar of Tabasco sauce all but made up for it. He also was thankful for an old carton of cigarettes that I had purchased, years ago, from at a duty-free shop, but didn’t like.

Over the next several weeks, Richard came to enjoy my roasted turkey wings and legs, goat meat with peas and potatoes, tilapia with rice onions and tomatoes, and pork and lamb chops with apple sauce and other left overs from my kitchen. The workers of Western Beef saw a lot of me, as they have the best selection of meat and greens in the Meat Packing area.

Richard really loved his spot along the Hudson River. I learned that he used the Chelsea Pier bathrooms early in the morning and while in the park, and he tried to be as invisible as possible. He spent much of the days sleeping, as he felt safe in the park during the sunlit hours, but not at night. He told me of one night when he was attacked by five teenagers. He awoke, terrified, and landed a blow to a leg that had just kicked him. He told me he might have broken the kids leg. The police came and eventually left. During the nights, he now roamed the streets for cans.

Richard had already made plans to leave Chelsea. His sister, who married to a man near Boston, put some money in his account for his bus ride to south. He purchased a standby ticket at the Port Authority, only to sleep through his call. The PA told him that he had forfeited his fare. He was waiting for another monthly influx of money from his sister. But when that date came and went, I wondered if Chelsea would always be Richard’s home. Summer was coming, and the park would soon be over flowing with people.

One sunny afternoon I treated Richard to lunch at the best table in Chelsea Waterside Park. No reservations were needed. It sat between the Carousel (playing music) and the water’s edge. I brought a large Ray’s pizza and two sausage heros from Domino's.  He spat the first bite of the hero out onto the wooden boardwalk, saying that it was the worst thing he had ever eaten. But he enjoyed the pizza.

Over his slices doused with layers of condiments and Tabasco, Richard spoke of a a life as a fisherman and a Marine that spanned the country and globe. It began with his parents move to the east coast from Norway only to be unhappy. Then they moved everyone  to Kodiak, Alaska where they found peace. Alaska’s terrain was near the water and much like their former homeland.

Richard was ocean fishing by 12 years old.  He spoke of a trip that was bringing in 10,000 lbs of Salmon straight to Seattle. While cruising through the Puget Sound, he saw a killer whale with baby in tow come alongside a great white shark. “The orca flip the shark on it’s back,” He said. *when sharks are inverted, they are comatose. The mother orca was teaching her baby how to attack and then eat a great white shark.” Richard told of the rancid ammonia smell that surfaced when a long-line accidentally snagged a giant 38 ft squid. He helped land a 485 lb. Halibut. He told me of how fishing took him to New England. Out of Gloucester, Massachusetts he caught swordfish. Out of Kennebunkport, Maine he once snagged a 28 lb lobster that’s still on display at the New England Aquarium. He did shrimp fishing down south. “Shrimp like the tidal water so your never far from shore.” He said.

At an early age, Richard joined the Marines and spent much time in the Middle East. He said he was a sniper. ”It was ultimately my decision to pull the trigger,” He said, adding,  “A Naval Cross, Silver Star. two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart and two Meritorial Medals for Honor... That’s pretty good for a Marine that’s still alive.”

His time in the service came to an abrupt end at Marines Central Command in Tampa, when he was on Temporary Assigned Duty (TADs). “I like to call it, ‘Traveling Around Drunk.’”  He said. While there, Richard was hit by a Mercedes Benz driven by a woman who had not yet learned how to use the pedals while wearing stilettos.
“You must of made some money from that accident?” I exclaimed.

“No,” He shook his head,  “The army made a ton of money, but they owned me, so I just got medical attention.”

I felt bad for Richard volunteering a plan to get him on his way south. I would take him to the Port Authority, pay for his bus ticket and make sure he boarded. But I first wanted him to get cleaned-up. Get him showered, get him a haircut and get all his clothes cleaned for the bus ride. We set a date for the following Wednesday when he said the buses might be less crowded.

On that Wednesday, I went to fetch him from the park. He was there. We gathered his stuff and walked to my apartment on 23rd street. I sat him in my favorite chair, made him coffee, and set the TV to a recorded episode of “Wicked Tuna.”  He became engrossed in the show, as it was like he was back on the high seas again. He was rocking and his happiness was my happiness. That moment made it all worth it.

Meanwhile, in the bathroom, I laid out a towel, wash cloth, my bar of soap, and a full set of clothes, plus a garbage bag for him to put his dirty clothes.  

His shower lasted close to an hour. At some point I had to knock, thinking he had lost consciousness or worse. When Richard finally came out he appeared to be fifteen pounds lighter, and his skin was now milky white, not red.

Next we went to the laundromat on 23rd and Ninth Avenue. Big Mama wouldn’t let Richard come far into, but she allowed me to put his clothes in a machine. Boy, were those clothes ripe. I told Big Mama that Richard would come by later with quarters for the dryer. Richard and I then left to get his beard and hair trimmed.

The barber at Chelsea Grand along 9th Avenue just past 24th Street refused to cut Richard’s hair so we went to a new barber shop on 22nd street and Ninth. A young man agreed to a trim job. I prepaid the barber and gave Richard a handful of quarters for the dryer, telling him I would be back in an hour. I had to meet with a tech guy to repair a computer at a nearby office.

When I returned to the barber shop, Richard was gone, The barber said that he had sat on the bench outside on Ninth Avenue for awhile, then left. He wasn’t at the laundromat either and his clothes were unmoved from the washing machine. I put his clothes in the dryer and then biked the neighborhood looking for him. Richard was no where to be found. I went back to the laundromat, placing his clean clothes into a fresh bag and went home. I found more trouble there.

My wife had come home from work and was furious. “What the hell happened in the bathroom? She exclaimed.

“Uh?” I said slinking away.

“There’s a pile of dirt on the bath mat, and let’s not even go to what happen in the bath tub!”

“What happened in the bathtub?“ I sheepishly asked.

“Dirt. It’s everywhere!”

“Oh, I had Richard, my homeless friend take a shower before he left town. I told you about him.”

“You what! You brought him here?” She yelled.

I had never been closer to being divorced than that evening. My wife lit up in ways I have never seen her before. Her rage was a mix of raw anger, disgust, and betrayal. I soon found myself back at the laundromat washing everything that Richard had touch including the wrap I had covering my favorite chair.

The next morning I googled Richard’s name and found that, for several years, he lived under a bridge that spanned the Middle River, south of Worcester, Massachusetts.

He was part of an article that documented the struggle a local task force had in bringing people in from the cold, especially those, like Richard, who had problems in dealing with other people. The article also revealed that Richard admitted to being an alcoholic.

I went to the 10th precinct concerned that Richard might have been arrested for the attack by the youths in the park. The officers had no idea of what or who I was talking about.
Three days later I found Richard back again on the hill surrounding the park’s bowl. I gave him his bag of clothes and sat down with him, taking care to avoid the fresh geese droppings. We talked. With his hair all neatly trim, he looked like more like ‘Richard the Professor’ than a menacing ‘Richard the Red.’ I felt bad for taking from him his former edge while he was still in the wild.

I told him I googled and found he for years lived under a bridge. I asked him of what was true and false of all he told me. He seemed to shrink into the hillside

He apologized for disappearing, explaining that his desire for drink had taken him over.

I was heart broken, as he was too. Richard had taken a handful of quarters and had disappeared into the night, He had cleaned up himself, and yet, with my brief absence, blew the whole plan. Instead of going south to be with his Captain friend, he sat with me overlooking the river, pulling up his sleeve of my own shirt, revealing a plastic Worcester hospital bracelet for substance abusers, as if that was his excuse.

I asked Richard for his Army info, explaining that I could contact Congressman Jerrold Nadler’s office to help him replace his Veterans card inorder to get benefits at the Veterans Hospital. He told me he served from 1986-through 1992 in the US Marines out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

I called Jerrold Nadler’s office and initiated the request. Unfortunately, I never saw Richard again. He disappeared. I even bicycled the entire Manhattan coastline looking for him.

Chelsea Waterside Park is no longer home to ‘Richard the Red.’ The river’s water that had bonded us, still flows, just as life still flows. I hope he is happily near the water again, somewhere.