On March 4, 1953, at approximately 11:30 P.M., Henry Shelby walked into the New York City hotel where he had maintained an apartment for five months. Upon asking for his key at the desk, he was informed by the clerk that he had been locked out until such time as his bill was settled. The bill amounted to about one hundred and thirteen dollars. At the moment, Shelby had about fourteen dollars, no job, and no friends upon whom he felt free to call for help. Without any argument, he turned and walked back out the door.
In the time that has passed since that night, he has returned to the hotel only once, and then–merely to see if he had any mail. He has not attempted to retrieve any of his belongings held by the management. With the exception of approximately three and one-half months, in the summer of 1953, he has been one of the thousands of men in various stages of vagrancy who wander the streets of New York City at all hours of the day and night.
Henry Shelby, today, is forty-one years old, but looks at least five years younger. He is five feet, eleven and one-half inches tall, weighs 162 pounds. His hair is black but thinning, and his eyes are a deep blue. He has no disfigurements, and his bearing is good. The key to his personality lies in his eyes which express the depth of his feeling, or a quiet humor, depending upon his mood. When he is deep in thought, or troubled, he is apt to trace patterns on the floor, or in the dirt, with the toe of his shoe. At other times he moves briskly, and with some of the grace and sureness of an athlete.
He is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in economics. He also holds a life teacher’s certificate in the state of Michigan and was, at one time, a teacher in the public schools of Lansing. His master’s degree studies were concentrated in the field of accounting procedure, and for four years after World War II, he was an accountant with the Post Office Department in Washington. His associates there consider him an excellent man in this field, and at least two of them say that he could probably qualify as a certified public accountant. In addition to these qualifications, he is experienced and capable in the field of public relations, where his approach has been described as “fresh” and “honest.”
The city of New York has long been noted for the number and variety of its vagrants. Estimates as to the number of homeless and penniless men and women run from a conservative 10,000 to somewhere around half a million. Vagrants in other parts of the United States are a migratory lot, usually moving with the weather, but the New York variety stay put, occupying park benches, flop houses, gutters, and doorways in all seasons. There are many who possess qualifications as rich as Henry Shelby’s. There are many who are literally human derelicts living out their days in a drunken stupor, waiting for an obscure death in the river or a ward at Bellevue. In between there are as many gradations as there are strata in normal society. Almost the only things all vagrants have in common are a hard luck story and an air of bewilderment. Not all of them have lost hope.
Henry Shelby is not a hopeless man, but he is certainly bewildered. He himself describes his present life as treading water, waiting to see how things come out. “In the meantime,” he says, “I’m getting along all right. I’m perfectly happy.”
In his months as a vagrant he has become an expert at management and has learned to put first things first. In his case this means food, cleanliness, and shelter, in that order. He prides himself on the fact that he has never panhandled, never visited a soup kitchen, or taken a night’s lodging in one of the various hostels maintained by charitable agencies in the city. He has accepted handouts, but he can recall only one instance where anyone ever stepped up to him and gave him money: One night in the middle of winter he noticed advertisements for the premiere of a motion picture at a Broadway theater. He arrived early and took up a prominent position against the ropes under the marquee. As he stood there, watching the celebrities arrive in their limousines, a man came over to him and placed an unfolded ten dollar bill in his hand.
Shelby has never been completely penniless except for one very brief period when he left New York. He has set fifteen cents, which represents subway fare, as the absolute minimum below which he will not allow his finances to sink. He has no maximum, but rarely possesses more than thirty dollars, which represents about one week’s salary at present minimum levels. He acquires his money in a variety of ways. He is able to pick up a day’s work here and there, carrying sandwich boards, working as a roustabout on the waterfront, washing dishes in cheap restaurants, shoveling snow for the city.
Nobody starves in America
When he gets money, he nurses it carefully. He can tell, one minute after he gets it, exactly how long it will last, because he knows what he’s going to eat, how many cigarettes he is going to smoke, and the amount it will cost him for lodging’, or incidentals. There are no extras in his life.
Virtually all of Shelby’s cash goes for food and cigarettes. His breakfasts, invariably, consist of a glass of fruit or vegetable juice; his lunches, of a sandwich, usually a frankfurter, and a glass of milk. His one substantial meal is supper, and into it he piles all the dietary necessities he has missed since he last ate such a meal. His plate is apt to be loaded with green vegetables, cooked vegetables, and meat. He will haggle back and forth with the counterman in order to get these items, usually trading off potatoes and dessert for them. He never looks at the contents of a meal until he looks at the prices and he always chooses the cheapest meal on the menu, unless it contains sea food, which he detests. He knows where all the best food bargains in town are to be found. A bargain means quantity, but once or twice a week he will seek out a place which serves something of which he is especially fond.
Between meals he drinks coffee, usually two cups during the morning and three cups during the afternoon and evening. When he is especially broke he cuts out regular meals and subsists entirely on coffee, loading all the sugar and cream he can into his cup. He explains that these are free calories, and that calories, no matter what form they take, will keep him going until he is able to eat regularly again.
Shelby says that the truest statement he has ever heard is that no one will ever starve to death in the United States, and his technique for getting food when he is low on money is a simple one. He walks the streets until he finds a restaurant with a sign in the window that reads “dishwasher wanted,” or “counterman wanted.” He goes in and works long enough to pay for a meal and earn a little extra money. Usually he completes whatever constitutes a full day’s work, but if the restaurant is a pleasant place, if he is treated well and the food is good, he may stay a week, or even longer. He is a good worker, and is well liked by his bosses and fellow employees. Many of the latter are men like himself.
He has learned a lot of odd jobs around kitchens and has filled in as a chef at two cafeterias, and as a short-order cook at a counter restaurant. At one place where he worked for five weeks, the manager recommended him for the managership of another unit in the chain which had fallen vacant. In this particular restaurant Shelby can always be sure of a job of some kind when he is broke; the manager will put him to work washing windows if there is nothing else available. The same condition holds true at five or six other places in town, but Shelby never uses them unless he is really desperate. He refers to them humorously as his social security.
Shelby usually allots no more than fifteen cents a day for shelter. Occasionally he pays more than this, but only when he has gotten by for two or three days without spending anything extra. Shelter means a place to sleep to Shelby, nothing else. His great preference, month in and month out, is for the Sixth and Eighth Avenue subways. He very rarely sleeps on the IRT or BMT. The IRT, with its ramshackle, noisy cars and its seating arrangement, is uncomfortable. The BMT has suitable accommodations, but, as Shelby describes it, “an undesirable clientele.”
Shelby usually boards the Eighth Avenue Subway at Pennsylvania Station between midnight and one in the morning and takes the first express that comes along. At that hour there is usually a seat, especially in the front car, and he immediately settles down and drops off to sleep. He has developed the happy faculty of being able to drop off, or awaken, almost at will. He sleeps lightly, not because he is afraid of being robbed–he never has enough money to worry about that–but because he is very cautious about oversleeping. The vagrant who is still sleeping soundly when the train reaches the end of the line is more than likely to be picked up and lodged in jail by the transportation police.
Upon reaching the end of the line, Shelby walks up the stairs from the train platform to the next level. The turnstiles are at this level, and rest rooms have been placed inside the turnstiles. He retires to one of these rest rooms, finds a booth, fastens the door, and smokes a leisurely cigarette. It is supposedly a misdemeanor to carry lighted tobacco within the turnstile area, but Shelby says he discovered quite early in his career that even the police use the privacy of the rest rooms to have a quiet cigarette. Of course, he takes no chances. If there is a policeman anywhere on the turnstile level he will forgo his smoke.
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