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Bell’s Corner: A Panhandler’s Home at 86th and Columbus

September 28, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ William Bell Jr. is looking low, his panhandler’s silhouette slumped under the morning sun, his clothes particularly grimy, his eyes gone from bloodshot to yellow.

It’s the same old story for Bell, a man who has dried out over and over only to fall back on the bottle, one among tens of thousands of beggars living on New York’s streets.

Most of the city’s residents learn quickly to avert their eyes. But not at Bell’s corner; not at 86th Street and Columbus Avenue. Everyone knows his spot, like they know his shy smile and notice when he’s drunk, or absent altogether.

Bell has found a home of sorts on the Upper West Side, traditionally a liberal bastion. Street people vie for territory, and his corner is among the mostly hotly contested, a real prize.

″What it is, well, it’s like a feeling I’ve got here. I’m comfortable on this corner,″ says Bell, 41. ″It feels like family to me here, because I know a lot of people care.″

A bearded Kris Kristofferson look-alike stops at a nearby newsstand, Bell gets the 65 cents change. A guy in a yarmulke fresh from dawn services drops 50 cents in the cup. A mother and her son waiting for the bus to summer day camp. An older gent in a jaunty straw boater. A young Hispanic dishwasher sweeping the sidewalk out front of the 3-Star diner. A yuppie toting a guilty conscience along with bundles of clothes bought at The Gap on the adjacent corner.

They all help Bell, though he keeps letting them down.

″We’re talking bleeding hearts here,″ deadpans Wayne Weiss, a film and video producer who works at 51 W. 86th St, just off Bell’s corner. ″We’re all strapped, but there’s something to be said for having some sympathy with the human condition. Someone has to care for the poor.″

So Weiss gives Bell a buck or two and the time of day. ″When he’s looking really low, I’ll get him a little something extra to eat, like a sandwich and some orange juice.″

Moshe Adler, whose apartment is above 86th and Columbus, likewise gives Bell food. ″I just bring him a little of whatever we eat at home,″ he says. ″We frequently have too much, so whatever we prepare I bring down along with some bread and utensils.″

Bell keeps bankers’ hours. Lunch is regularly at 1 p.m. The crosstown M86 bus roars by in a cloud of midday soot. And there he is, drinking an orange soda, eating an egg sandwich or banana, reading yesterday’s funnies.

He nets at least $40 a day in cash - more than his last job washing dishes paid. If the morning goes badly, there’s a liquor store down the block.

Maria Kennedy, a chiropractor at 5 W. 86th St., gives Bell whatever change is in her pocket. ″And if he’s gone a few days in a row, I wonder if something happened,″ she says. ″I think that might be important to him.

″I was always of the opinion that you shouldn’t give money to anyone. But rubbing shoulders with these people day in and day out, my opinion changed. I began to feel that yes, even if I’m contributing to a habit, at least I’m trying to do something for them. But I’m not so sure it’s for them.

″It’s for myself that I needed to do it,″ Kennedy says.

The sentiment, Ram Singh understands. The handouts, he cannot abide.

″Giving money like that, we are spoiling their lives,″ says Singh, 54, who hawks newspapers on the opposite end of the block, near Central Park. ″These people, they no longer have self-respect. We are making beggars of them for life.″

Singh, who has a master’s degree in engineering, came to America 10 years ago looking for a break. Today, he’s got $22,000 in the bank and has built a home for his mother in India. It’s the immigrant’s tale of backbreaking 18- hour days and modest expectations.

On the average, neighborhood panhandlers like William Bell, Smokey, Lisa, Lisa’s sister and the rest take in double Singh’s $35 a day - tax-free.

″But I have great grief for these people in my heart,″ says Singh, who lives at a $31-a-week residence hotel. ″They are my brothers and sisters.″

Singh has watched young women urinating in doorwells and prostituting themselves to a few of the block’s less savory doormen. He’s seen strapping men fade into the shadows, needles in their arms.

He has tried to help Bell and others get a new start. He’s shared his breakfast, offered to bank their money and pressed cash from his own pocket into their hands. But Singh’s money and advice invariably dead-end in drugs.

Many New Yorkers, like other Americans struggling to make ends meet, have lost patience with the endless cycle of addiction-joblessness-homelessness. It’s a frustration sometimes called compassion fatigue.

″And that’s just as well. We don’t like to see people handing out money on the street,″ says counselor Ruby Bove of St. Christopher’s Inn, an upstate New York shelter where Bell twice has stayed.

″People want to help and that’s understandable,″ she says. ″But all it does is make it easy for them to stay on the streets. It keeps them from helping themselves. It’s killing them slowly with kindness.″

Bell’s own relatives were long ago wrung dry of pity. Too many midnight calls and pleas for money, too many broken promises and sorry excuses.

″I’ve been in every program there is,″ Bell says. ″I start out OK, but then I get that feeling that I don’t belong. Nothing is mine. I was like a wild stallion when I was young, but now I’m broken.″

It was not one big disappointment, but a relentless string of smaller sadnesses that ground him down. His father was in prison before Bell learned to say ″Dad.″ His mother had four more children by three different men. An unhappy tour of duty in Vietnam followed by an unhappy relationship, alcoholism and two decades spent mostly on the streets.

″I used to watch ‘Donna Reed’ and ‘Father Knows Best’ as a kid growing up,″ Bell says. ″That was the life I was going to get when I grew up. That’s what I wanted, to settle down in a nice house.″

But every time he’s moved in that direction, the bottle has beckoned him back. Thunderbird, Irish Rose, rotgut booze that loses him jobs but blunts the hunger and blots out the pain.

Just a few months ago, regulars at the 3-Star diner looked up to see Bell clear-eyed and cleanshaven, smiling. He’d been through another rehab program and was wearing a clean, white uniform to go with his new dishwashing job at a halfway house down on West End Avenue.

He had an address, a place to sleep as long as he stayed sober. He said he was on his way. But before the week was out, Bell was back to begging.

″I’ve been so disappointed,″ says Monsy Rodriguez, a waitress at the 3- Star. ″I was really rooting for him when he came back here to visit. He was looking so good, all cleaned up like that.

″Now I know he can do for himself, but he doesn’t,″ she says. ″He’d rather be standing on the corner.″

″Yeah. Back at the same old spot,″ says Bell, his eyes glazed with liquor and defeat. ″It’s embarrassing, you know. It hurts my pride. But at least I’m safe here.″

Still, he knows that’s not enough.

Bell said goodbye again recently and checked himself into St. Christopher’s in Garrison, N.Y. He was ready to review the 12 steps, renew the vow to live one day at a time.

Maybe this time would be different, he said. ″It’s got to be. Living out here begins to wear on you, body and soul. I’ve got to make a change. I’ve got to at least keep trying.″

Not three weeks later, Bell was back at his corner again.