The first time I walked by Jon, he was sitting on the sidewalk next to the building where I worked, reading a book. I dropped some change into his coffee cup and said, “Hey, take care, man.”
Jon had a beard and a quality of repose about him, and he lacked the swollen facial features and abrasive tone of an addict or an alcoholic. The cardboard sign he used for begging read: Think. What would you do if you were here? All I ask is for a smile, change, it all helps, a hello, I’m human and I enjoy human contact. Thanks.
Another day, after I gave him a few coins, I noticed that sitting beside him was a stack of thin incense boxes. They were swollen with water damage, and I assumed he’d salvaged them from the trash. “Please, take one,” he said. I did so, and thanked him.
“Watch out,” I added, “I think it’s going to rain.”
“I can feel it in my bones,” he replied, in a thick Southern accent.
I smiled and was about to leave, but there was something to the way he held his book—a devotion beyond that of someone merely trying to escape into a thick paperback. “What are you reading?” I asked.
“Newjack,” he said. The book had an image of a prison guard on its cover.
“Oh, Ted Conover.”
The decibel level of his voice was somewhat low, which made it hard to hear over Broadway’s midday traffic and pedestrian noise. Seeing Jon alone on the sidewalk as deliverymen, food vendors, and well-dressed professionals bustled around him, I wondered if he spent a lot of time by himself. Many years ago, apartment-sitting in Spanish Harlem, I was charged with looking after an extremely recalcitrant (maybe even malevolent) cat, to whom I was grossly allergic. I spoke to no one for days at a time, and I noticed that when I was forced to interact, buying groceries at a bodega, my voice had gotten much quieter, as if it had adjusted itself to my thoughts. I had to force myself to speak up, just to be heard.
“Other homeless people take drugs and drink,” Jon said. “Nonfiction is my thing. I’m writing my autobiography. It’s called God Blinked.”
“God blinks sometimes and isn’t watching,” he said. “When bad things happen to good people. God blinked in my life. My wife and child were murdered three years ago.”
“That’s terrible, Jon. By who?”
“He was an intruder. My daughter was nine. And my wife was pregnant.”
“Where did this happen?”
“Did they get the guy who did it?”
Jon nodded. “He was sent to prison for twenty-five years,” he said. But then he added, shaking his head, “He’s eligible for parole in October.”
I told Jon that if he would sit down the following day and allow me to interview him, I’d buy him lunch. Assuming that what he had told me was true, I was interested in how he had survived such a loss. I wanted to be of help somehow. Maybe I could tell some of his story for him.
In a café on Bleecker Street, Jon told me that he was born on February 29, 1960, in Skene, Scotland. The middle child of triplets, he was put up for adoption when he was six days old. “My parents did not think I was going to make it,” he said. “I was born blind and deaf. That’s why when you talk to me, I stare at you—I’m reading lips.”
Jon said a U.S. Navy military policeman and his wife adopted him, and brought him to America. His adoptive father died about ten years ago, after which his adoptive mother committed suicide, hanging herself in the closet of the family home in Texas. During his childhood, they moved constantly: Australia, Japan, Washington State, Miami, the Philippines, San Diego, and, finally, Amarillo, where he claims to have graduated from high school when he was thirteen and to have scored 145 on his I.Q. test.
“As you can see,” he said, “I read. I finished that book you gave me last night.” I had given him a copy of Bernard Wasserstein’s On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War. Since I worked at a magazine, it was easy to pluck such things from the discard pile. Apparently Jon had polished off the Conover book and read another 576 pages of On the Eve in the last ten hours. “I consider myself above the average homeless person in the street,” he declared. “Most of them have no education. They’re either running from the law or a family member or they’re chronic alcoholics or drug addicts.”
There are now more homeless people in New York City than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In November of 2014, more than 60,000 people slept each night in the city’s municipal shelters—including 25,600 homeless children, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Jon has, at times, attempted to take advantage of the city’s shelters. But he’s always found himself back on the street, worse for wear.
“I went to the mission on Lafayette when it snowed last winter and said I just needed a place to stay,” he told me. “But after a few days, I had to go back out onto the street. I said, ‘What about your program here?’ They said, ‘Since you’re not an alcoholic or drug addict, we can’t help you.’”
He had considered pretending to be an alcoholic, he said, but ultimately dismissed the idea: “When you lie like that, you’re lying to yourself.” He’s also tried his luck with the Department of Homeless Services. “You go there and they put you in the worst possible environment. They assigned me to a shelter on Wards Island. It’s a place for young men, and I’m not young. I was robbed. I was asked if I’d perform fellatio on someone, and when I said no, I got my teeth knocked out.” He grinned, displaying a mouthful of broken, blackened teeth—stubs and slivers, mostly.
After Wards Island, Jon was moved to another shelter, the Bedford-Atlantic facility in Brooklyn. There he was stabbed with a piece of plastic that broke off inside his stomach. He said that the doctors at the hospital had been forced to dig out the snapped-off shank without any painkillers, since he’s allergic to opiates as well as antibiotics. At this point he pulled up his T-shirt and showed me a scar in the middle of his stomach, about six inches long and two inches wide.
While I ate, Jon made many claims about his past: he said that after his graduation from high school, he got a B.A. from Texas Tech and then went to Georgetown University on a scholarship before obtaining a master’s degree in social work from Johns Hopkins; he said that he had nowhere to shave and no clean clothes for job interviews; he said that he had been a vegan for thirty years, and that he believed the killing of animals was murder. We spoke in this way for an hour. Before we left the café, he said, “Read Proverbs Three, verses five and six.” We agreed to meet the next day and he added, “I’ll see you then, unless I get killed. If so, I’ll see you in heaven.”
As soon as I got back to the office, I looked up those verses:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and do not rely on your own understanding.
Know Him in all your ways,
and He will direct your paths.
The next day, Jon and I sat down again at the same café. Now he looked a little like Red Buttons with longer, stringier hair, and his keen eyes blazed with intelligence. And yet Jon seemed to me to be a gentle soul. It’s that very quality within the circumstances of his homelessness that was such an afflictive paradox to behold. I intuited that bad things had happened to him long ago. At one point in our conversation, I asked whether his adoptive parents had ever been abusive.
Yes, he said, he had experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from both parents. He had been raped by his father between the ages of three and twelve. His father would say, “I have the right.” Sometimes his father sodomized him and forced him to perform obscene acts with his mother at the same time.
“It was spiritual abuse,” he told me. “Rape of the soul.”
On and on the story went. I had trouble taking notes. Yet I saw that there was a glow in his eyes—a special little twinkle—and I began to feel suspicious. There was an unrelenting quality to the abominations that Jon related. He said that the abuse had given him PTSD. “I’m living because I want to live,” he said. “It would be so simple to end it all.”
I asked if he had ever tried to get help as a child. He said he had turned to his guidance counselor at his elementary school, but when she and her husband visited him and his parents at home, all four adults had sex with him. (At this point the sheer extremity of his narrative—like a black comedy devised to break the spirit—was simultaneously inducing nausea and the urge to laugh.) Jon said the abuse from his father had stopped when he turned twelve. “He told me I was getting too old,” said Jon. “I was beginning to get, you know, underarm hair. He was a pedophile. I come from a family with a history of pedophilia.” I asked if his father or mother were alcoholics or drug addicts. He said his mother drank vodka and Seven Up. I asked if he had ever spoken to a therapist about the abuse, and Jon said that he had briefly seen one in Washington, D.C., when he was eighteen. The therapist’s response was: “You must have enjoyed it.”
“But I was a child,” Jon protested. That was the only session with the therapist. “I pity him,” he added.
The third time I got together with Jon, it was a Monday, and he said he’d been robbed four times over the weekend and his cup of coins had been stolen while he was asleep.
“Rock stars,” he said. “Crackheads.”
He had spent the ten dollars I’d given him on a trip to the veterinarian for Cuddles, his long-haired chihuahua. For another twenty-six dollars, he said, he could take a bus north to the Appalachian Trail, where he planned to forage—he had a book on the subject in his pack. He wanted to take Cuddles, who was now staying with a friend of his in the Bronx. When I asked what Cuddles would eat, he said that the dog was a vegan, too. Mostly he just wanted to get out of New York City: “Ninety-nine percent of the people look at me like I’m scum.” Someone in a parked car had whipped a penny at him the other day.
I asked whether anything still inspired him. “The fact that my wife and daughter are in a far better place,” he said. “That they’re not suffering.”
Jon told me that he met his late wife, Victoria Anne when they were both four years old. As children, they told each others’ mothers they were going to get married. When they were both eighteen, just after she graduated from high school in 1978, they did. For a long time afterward they tried to have a child. “Finally we were blessed with a daughter,” he said. “They did an encephalogram when Victoria Anne was six months pregnant. They told us our daughter was going to be born blind and deaf and asked if we wanted to abort her.” Jon paused. “No,” he said.
Their daughter, Tamara Robbyn, was born blind and deaf, and Jon soon started teaching himself Braille. “She was a very beautiful little lady,” he said.
In 2009, a great opportunity came along: having worked for fifteen years as a paramedic in Texas, he was offered a job as head paramedic for a fire station in Okeechobee, Florida. He moved his family down there and his wife became pregnant with another child. But on the afternoon of July 17, 2010, an intruder named Tommy Lesoda broke into his home and raped, sodomized, and murdered both Victoria and Tamara. Then he cut their throats, Jon said. He returned home after work, found them, and dialed 911.
“They accused me, of course,” Jon told me. The police questioned him extensively, but his alibi stood up. “I was on a call to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida.” He continued: “I had a nervous breakdown. I stopped talking, I stopped eating, stopped taking care of myself.” He was hospitalized for three days and evaluated, then released. “When I got out, I started wandering.” Jon said he walked from Florida to California, taking seven and a half months, and wound up in San Bernardino.
He pulled a heart-shaped cushion from his bag with the words I Love You printed on the fabric, holding it with both hands. It was, he told me, the last gift his daughter had ever given him. “I still have my daughter’s teddy bear with me,” he said. “It’s stained with her blood.” He also showed me a small mesh bag filled with lavender, a gift from his wife.
After we parted, I decided I had to try to verify some of his stories. I called the City of Okeechobee Police Department to inquire about the killing. But the clerk I spoke to told me there was no record of his wife or daughter having been murdered on July 17, 2010, or on any other date. Nor was there any record of Tommy Lesoda, the alleged perpetrator. The clerk, who had worked in the department for ten years, said that the murder of a mother and child is something she would definitely remember. Next I tried the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office. They too could find no record of the victims of the alleged killer. Searches for Lesoda and Lesota and Losodo also turned up nothing. As I subsequently learned, there were no inmates by these names in the entire Florida state penitentiary system.
For the heck of it, I tried to find his elementary school in Amarillo, Texas. There was nothing under the name he had given me. I found one in Charleston, West Virginia. But not in Amarillo. I also called the fire department in Clarendon, Texas, where Jon said he had been employed before moving to Okeechobee—and was told that all paramedics working there between 1972 and 1987 were volunteers. I called the City of Okeechobee Fire Department, was referred to the county department, and then connected with a firefighter who’s been there since 1990. When I asked if Jon had worked there as a paramedic in 2009, his answer was succinct: “No.” I attempted to run down Victor and Vivian Boynton, the friends who were supposedly taking care of Cuddles in the Bronx, but found no trace of them in the Bronx or Manhattan telephone directories.
When I next saw Jon, I told him that neither the police in Okeechobee nor the County Sheriff’s Office could locate any of the names he had given me. He just looked down and was completely still and silent. Like a stone.
I walked over to the ATM, got a twenty, gave it to him, and left.
What did I know of what had truly happened to this man? I had heard him out, and, like a man in the desert dying of thirst, he’d drunk the cool water of this attention right down. Perhaps that was the point: desperate for connection, he had concocted the sort of details that would guarantee the greatest degree of sympathy from a stranger—and the biggest donations, too. As a friend said to me, “It sounds like he’s crazy. Why are you talking to a crazy man? What’s the matter with you? What do you expect?”
Those were good questions.
I still think that the man who represented himself to me as Jon was not necessarily lying. His fabricated, imaginary world might well have been real to him. I think. Unless I was simply a mark unconsciously searching for a con man. That too seems unlikely to me—but after all, I was an actor for many years, and have always thrived on performance and make-believe, and suspect that there is no lie that does not have some fundamental truth. I had listened to Jon, suspecting he was lying but not letting it matter, at least for a while. I wanted to accept and honor whatever he had to say, keeping a close watch on my wallet and hoping for some expression of a greater truth.
In mid-September, I was walking along West 3rd Street when I saw Jon again, walking toward me. He didn’t see me. I stopped and waved.
He looked different. Much better—relaxed, poised, even peaceful, which I took to be the gifts of regular sleep. He told me that he was living at the Riverside Hotel up on Broadway and 180th Street. Later he told me it was actually a condemned building that rented out rooms for forty-five dollars per night, and if he couldn’t come up with the full amount, they let him clean the premises as payment.
A week later, I found him sitting on a stoop on the southeast corner of Broadway and Houston. He still looked relatively rested and calm, with Cuddles nestled beside him. I noted once again that I had called Texas and Florida and was unable to verify many of the things he had told me. “Why do you think that is?” I said.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember what I told you.”
“Why are you living out here?”
“Ever hear of the martyr complex?”
We talked about cities, about how cheap it had been to rent space in Soho during the 1960s, and I told him that a painter friend of mine said you could live pretty inexpensively in Bucharest these days. We talked as well about how much warmer it was in the South. I asked him again why he was living in New York City.
“I like watching the people,” he said. “The different kinds of people.”
I gave Jon some more books and we agreed to meet the next day at noon. But I couldn’t find him. I looked up and down Broadway, then between Prince and Houston: nothing. He seemed to have vanished.
The following week I ran into Jon at Broadway and Bond, and told him I had been looking for him. He said he had been looking for me, too, and apologized for missing our meeting last week. He had gotten a moving job, he said, and had emailed to let me know he couldn’t make it, using a demo computer at Best Buy and his daughter’s old email account, whose address began with DadsLilPrincess. Later, when I carefully checked my email, I could find no message.
I asked if he wanted me to buy him something to eat or a coffee. He said no.
Jon pointed out a tall, skinny, man across the street in a purple shirt, who was lugging some junk. “He’s a rock star,” he said, making it sound like a bad thing. The rock star was collecting discarded metal from a remodel, selling it elsewhere, and using the proceeds to buy crack. Once Jon tried to park his shopping cart behind the dumpsters for the night. “Better not leave it here,” the man told him. “Someone might steal it.” Jon said, “Meaning him.”
On our last visit, he showed me the books he had found in the street. There was a biography of Henry VIII, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and something about the Vietnam War.
“Pretty good,” I said. “Isn’t it amazing what people throw away?”
“You don’t throw away books! How can people throw away a book?”
Jon said that he keeps his library in his room at the hotel. I asked how many books he had accumulated there. He said, “About forty-five.”
Not for the first time, I asked Jon which diagnoses he had received from doctors. “Chronic depression,” he replied. “PTSD. And now a new one, social avoidance disorder.”
“I’m sure I’ve got that last one too,” I said. “And anybody who isn’t depressed these days has got to be crazy.” We laughed.
Jon said that sometimes people walking by would kick his cupful of change across the sidewalk.
“You mean, like, guys looking for a fight?”
“No, just regular people.”
We agreed to meet at noon, right where we were standing, in two days. When I showed up, Jon did not appear. I decided to wait for five minutes, and noticed how long five minutes could be. At the end of the day, I went back again to the same spot, searching for him. Soon the October twilight would turn the sky red and orange and purple, like a beautiful wound, and the buildings gray, like old stones. But he was not there.
Adrian Kneubuhl is a writer who lives in New York City.