Hulton Archive/Chris Ware Hulton Archive/Chris Ware
By Stephanie Urdang

When I met Denny and his wife, they were squatting in a four-story brownstone with pots of herbs and a private patio. It was 1968 in the Fulton Fish Market, long before South Street Seaport became a destination. Desolation was the flavor of the neighborhood, especially at night. My ex-husband and I lived down there, too, on the second floor of an old six story seaman’s hotel. All four stories above us sat creakingly empty above our heads. Naturally, we investigated with a flashlight and found rows of tiny rooms piled with debris from former inhabitants.

Our rental arrangement was totally illegal in every possible way. Unlike Denny and his wife, we paid rent, although it was not to the owner of the building, but to a man who leased the storefront, which was never open. Our space was originally the lobby of the hotel, with parquet ebony trim around the edges of the main room floor. As twenty-one-year-old hippies, we thought fancy woodwork was a sign of doing well, and we referred to the neighborhood as “the country.”

Denny showed up unannounced at our apartment one afternoon with a huge, fresh-caught bluefish. He’d wrapped it in The New York Times. Witnessing a dock worker stash it under a stoop to be retrieved later, Denny stole it from the thief and asked me to cook it. I stuffed it with lots of vegetables, butter, and fresh dill, and the four of us ate every divine ounce.

A few nights later, his wife pounded on our door in a downpour, holding her minimal possessions in paper bags, seeking refuge. Soaked and crying a river of tears, she referred to him as manic depressive, or maybe schizophrenic, and listed all the affronts she could no longer abide. Early the next morning her Connecticut family fetched her. It would be years before I saw Denny again.

My ex and I moved to Missouri, eventually divorced, and in 1985, I moved back to New York. New friends and I formed a bicycle and eating club called ‘Rolling Thunder,’ and on one excursion, we headed down to South Street Seaport. Still empty and dark at night, as we peddled through, I remembered Denny to one of the members. Within seconds, there he was; obviously homeless, matted hair, still handsome in his full sensual features, slogging toward us with his belongings on his back. We whizzed into a single file and as I sped past, he looked me in the eye, and I into his. It was a moment of electrifying shock. I rode on.

In the Fall of 2009, after years of making regular sojourns from the Museum of Natural History, across the park by Turtle Pond and the Castle to see a client in The Carlyle, much to my surprise, there sat Denny on a park bench. I recognized him like I’d seen him the day before. As if holding court in his living room, with royal ease he smoked and read The New York Times. Beside him was a sand filled cloth bottom ashtray, and at his feet, a red cart neatly stacked with his worldly possessions. His remarkably vital state caused me to recall his concerned family who must have stayed involved. Except for a very few sprigs of gray hair, Denny looked the same as he did fifty years before, but more elegant. Again, shocked speechless, I kept going.

I saw Denny many times on the same bench. He never looked at me and I was uncertain if I should talk to him, wary of his problems, exhausted by my own. But one day, as I passed him on my way to work, I told myself, ‘If he’s still there when I come back in an hour, I’ll just introduce myself.’ I meant it, too, ashamed that I hadn’t before.

After work, as I approached the exit door of The Carlyle while rehearsing what I’d say to him, I heard a grown man screaming, “NO, NO, NO!” My first thought was, “Denny.”  In trepidation, I went outside to the sight of a spry elderly man in a suit sprawled lifelessly on his back on Madison Avenue. He’d landed in a graceful flying pose. It all happened in an instant because the wind blew the man’s hat to the ground; he ducked under the shovel of a bulldozer to retrieve it, and unseen, it came down on him. The workmen were crying, and the one I heard screaming before — the operator of the equipment — was still screaming, “No,” stomping his feet as he paced back and forth. I felt myself turn yellow from the inside out. I took off for the park, flew by Denny without a word, and we’ve not crossed paths again.

Leave a Reply