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March 1956 Issue [Article]

Subways Are for Sleeping

This article by Edmund G. Love (obituary), published in the March 1956 issue, was subsequently turned into a production by the CBS Radio Workshop (7.3 Mb MP3), a book, and a musical–which led in turn to an interesting hoax by a zealous producer.

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.


Drawings by Marilyn Miller

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.

After his cigarette, he goes back to the train platform and boards the next train going in the opposite direction from the one he has just come. He quickly settles into a seat and goes to sleep again. He remains asleep until he reaches the other end of the line, then, as before, has his smoke and reboards a train. This time his nap is much shorter because he debarks at the Jay Street–Borough Hall station in Brooklyn and transfers to the Sixth Avenue Subway. On this he makes a full round trip, going all the way out to Queens, back to the Brooklyn end of the line, and then back to Jay Street. There he reboards the Eighth Avenue, which he rides back to Penn Station.

The whole trip consumes from four and a half to five and a half hours, during the course of which he has probably netted four hours of sleep. Over the months he has learned many of the habits and assignments of the transportation police, and he tries to keep himself from being too familiar a figure. For this reason he does not depend entirely upon the subway and does not dare ride it oftener than every other night.

Seasonal sleeping

On his off nights, in good weather, he sometimes uses the two great parks, Central and Prospect. By varying his hours of repose, carefully selecting secluded spots, and transferring his resting places often, he can spend one night a week in either one or the other of them. Also, in warm weather, there are fire escapes. Because he knows the city as well as he does, Shelby has been able to locate several covered, and therefore secluded, ones. Most of them are attached to theaters or warehouses and offer ideal accommodations. For some reason, the police never seem to bother vagrants who occupy these emergency exits. And on three or four occasions during the summer Shelby manages to get out to one of the beaches near the city. He can sleep unmolested there, especially on a hot night. There are always legitimate sleepers, as he calls them, who are trying to escape the heat.

Naturally, in the fall, winter, and early spring, Shelby has to find other places. The benches in the waiting rooms at Grand Central, Penn Station, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal are his favorites outside of the subway. As in every other place, however, there are strict rules of conduct which must be observed. Shelby learned early that the station police in each of the three establishments have set habits. They make two routine checks during the course of a night. At Grand Central, for example, these checks come at one-thirty and five-thirty. Between the checks there are both policemen and plain-clothes men on duty in the waiting room throughout the night, and they wander up and down, carefully checking trouble spots. Ordinarily, however, these roving guardians will not disturb people who are stretched out on the benches asleep. Between the checks, therefore, it is possible to get almost four hours of uninterrupted sleep in a prone position. Conditions at Penn Station are about the same, and at the bus terminal the checks are farther apart, but the lights are brighter and the crowds larger, giving less room to stretch out.

Shelby keeps, as part of his equipment for sleeping in one of the three terminals, three tickets: to Poughkeepsie, New York; Princeton, New Jersey; and Elizabeth, New Jersey, one for each of the three lines. Inspection of timetables has revealed that there are no busses or trains leaving New York for these points between one and six in the morning. In emergencies, should the station police question him too closely, Shelby flashes the appropriate ticket and claims that he missed the last train and is waiting for the first one in the morning. This has always worked, but on one occasion a station policeman escorted him to a six-thirty train and made certain he got on it. Shelby got off at 125th Street and walked back to Grand Central.

Shelby regards sleeping in hotel lobbies as an unsatisfactory experience, yet he feels bound to try it every now and then. No lobby can be occupied during the night, and daytime occupancy is limited to about two hours at most. While house officers will not ordinarily run a respectably dressed man out into the street, they will shake him awake every hour or so. In order to get four hours of sleep, Shelby estimates that he has to visit eight hotels during a day. He always apologizes profusely for having dozed off and never visits the same hotel oftener than every third month.

Shelby says that it is always advisable to carry something when sleeping in a lobby. House officers are apt to respect a man’s privacy if he has an umbrella or brief case lying in his lap. When Shelby plans to use a hotel lobby, he will wander up and down the subway trains the day before until he finds what he is looking for. Subways are full of things that are suitable for hotel lobbies. He always turns in whatever he has found to the Board of Transportation’s Lost and Found Department after he has used it, and he is always careful to check back later to find out whether there has been any reward. He collected twelve and a half dollars this way last year.

Shelby thinks that all-night theaters are the most overrated sleeping places for men like himself. He has used them, and still does occasionally, but compared to the subway, they are inordinately expensive and their seats, though much softer, are much less suited to sleeping. They tip back too much, and the head is apt to snap backwards instead of forward. This always awakens Shelby. Furthermore, one cannot very well lean one’s head on one’s arm when elbow resting room has to be fought for with one’s neighbor. The pictures are noisy in unexpected places, and the sounds that are thrown out from the screen are loud and unorthodox. On top of this, Shelby has found that no matter what picture is being shown, he cannot keep from watching it to see how it comes out. Thus, instead of getting some sleep, he gets entertained.


The well-kempt vagrant

Most people do their personal grooming in the privacy of their own homes. Because Henry Shelby is homeless, he cannot. But for two reasons he places more importance on his personal appearance than he does on having a place to sleep. First, he is naturally a neat and tidy man to whom uncleanliness is distasteful. Second, good grooming is a safety factor in his existence. The police will always pick up an unkempt man and will generally walk right by a tidy man. A shower is not only a comfort, but a good investment.

From each five dollar bill he gets, Shelby sets aside enough money to provide himself with a bath. If he goes six days without one, he will stop eating until he can pay for one. Most of Shelby’s baths are taken in the public rooms of Grand Central Station and cost sixty-five cents. Shaving is also a problem. At Shelby’s age, he cannot go for more than twenty-four hours without acquiring a heavily shaded face. After that his beard is apt to become a heavy stubble. Nevertheless, he tries to stretch the time between shaves to at least thirty-six hours for economic reasons: it costs twenty-five cents to use one of the booths at Grand Central set aside for this purpose. Like most New York City vagrants, Shelby always carries a safety razor in his pocket and will take any opportunity he can to get in a quick, free shave and a chance to brush his teeth. He uses ordinary soap for shaving cream.


Clothing is another important item of appearance. With the exception of his outer garments, Shelby owns two of everything: two white shirts, two suits of underwear, two pairs of socks, and two neckties. One set is always on his back and the other is usually in storage at some laundry in the Grand Central area. Whenever he takes his bath, Shelby drops by the laundry first and picks up his clean linen. After his shower he carefully wraps the soiled clothes in a bundle and leaves them in another laundry to be washed.

His outer garments are kept as neat as possible. Once or twice a week he drops in at one of the small tailor shops around town and sits in his shirt tails while his coat and trousers are being pressed. Unfortunately, he has never found a place where he can sit in a booth while the clothes are being cleaned. When his garments are quite dirty, and he gets enough money ahead, he picks up his clean laundry and retires to a cheap but good hotel. There he engages a room, paying for it in advance. Once the door is closed on the bellhop, he strips and calls valet service. For the next twenty-four hours, while the cleaners are at work on his coat and trousers, he spends his time in bed, or under the shower. He has slept for twenty-two hours on these occasions, and taken as many as fifteen showers. He never gets too much sleep or too many showers. The whole twenty-four-hour period in the hotel, including cleaning, costs him about seven dollars. Shelby considers this gross extravagance, since his weekly average expenditure is about eight dollars, but for some time he never seemed to accumulate enough money to buy a second suit. Besides, he always comes out of his stay with a tremendous sense of pleasure and well being.

One of the astounding things about Shelby’s existence is that he has become a recluse, just as surely as though he lived on a desert island. For three or four days at a time he will speak to no one, nor will anyone speak to him. He is not solitary by nature, but his way of life and his desire to continue it without molestation impose this penalty upon him. While he might like to engage the policeman in the Grand Central waiting room in conversation, he realizes that if he did, he might be recognized easily the next time he visited there, and all subsequent visits would gradually peg him as a homeless person, making him liable to arrest and harassment.

This solitude has brought him one great problem which he senses but finds difficult to describe: the problem of passage of time. Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants. While he is waiting, he is plagued by a restlessness that keeps him on the move for seventeen or eighteen hours a day. He is likely to say that he moves about as much as he does because policemen will not stop a man who looks as though he is coming from some place or going to some place. What he does not say, because he does not realize it, is that he is working to keep his time occupied.

Culture and recreation

Shelby’s search for entertainment has lead him into every nook and cranny of the city and brought him knowledge which he might not otherwise have gained. One idiosyncrasy that he has discovered but cannot account for is the attitude of station policemen toward book readers. After seven-thirty in the evening, in order to read a book in Grand Central or Penn Station, a person either has to wear horn-rimmed glasses, or look exceptionally prosperous. Anyone else is apt to come under surveillance. On the other hand, newspaper readers never seem to attract attention and even the seediest vagrant can sit in Grand Central all night without being molested if he continues to read a paper. Shelby therefore spends one or two hours a night going over the daily papers. He regularly reads all seven final editions of New York journals, which he picks out of trash baskets.

Shelby is extraordinarily fond of museums and galleries and has become something of an art expert. Vagrants are rarely molested in New York museums and galleries. Shelby is apt to smile and say this is because the guards can never distinguish between a legitimate bum and an artistic one. They never disturb a person like him because they never know when they are trying to eject an artist who is holding a one-man show on the third floor.

Shelby began frequenting the big marble-coated buildings many months ago in search of shelter and warmth. He followed the guides around on their tours, often three or four times a day. In order to seem part of the group making the tour he would ask questions. And by this time he knows enough to stump most of the guides. He has developed a genuine love for the subject, knows where every show in town is being held and what it contains, and is thinking of trying to do a little painting himself. But when he goes to the shows, he is also still on the lookout for some obscure nook or cranny where he can stretch out and sleep for an hour or two. Even a corner behind a Grecian column where a man can sleep upright without interruption is valuable.

Another of Shelby’s pastimes is to take the ferry ride from the Battery to Staten Island and back. He calls this the poor man’s ocean voyage. Unfortunately, the round trip costs ten cents, which puts it in the luxury class. More often, he boards one of the numerous Central Railroad of New Jersey ferries and makes three or four round trips to the Jersey shore. If he gets on during the rush-hour periods he is not noticed and there is no expense.

Pursuing this pastime Shelby has picked up a surprising amount of information on navigation, and he is rapidly becoming an authority on the New York tidal flow. He seems to get a great deal of enjoyment out of criticizing the pilots of the ferries if they do not bring their vessels squarely into the slips, and almost the first thing he reads in the New York papers is the shipping news. Two or three times a week he journeys to the waterfront to watch the arrival or departure of one of the big liners. On other occasions he will go down to the Jersey ferry slips and board the little vessel that he estimates will come closest to the big ships as they move up the river or put out to sea.

The city offers other free sources of diversion too. Shelby always follows a fire engine; has a nose for street fights; and, if he stumbles upon an accident, never leaves the scene until the last policeman has closed his notebook. He stops to listen to every sidewalk preacher he comes across and likes to sing the hymns just for the pleasure of singing something. He knows every major construction project in town, but rarely watches such routine phases of the work as excavation or riveting. He looks the site over and then shows up at the exact moment some critical problem is about to be solved.

He is a steady visitor at the various courts around town, and is what he describes as a sucker for band music. For this reason he believes he is happier in New York than he would be in any other city in the world. New York is the only place where there is a parade of some kind every day in the year. On some days there are two or three. Last Armistice Day, Shelby visited five parades and took part in one. The peculiar advantages of the microfilm room of the New York Public Library, which he came upon almost by accident, are probably Shelby’s unique discovery. He had been advised by another vagrant that the library was a good place to keep warm on a cold day, and that it offered an opportunity for an hour or two of sleep. Several days later he made his first call there, provided with what he considered a plausible excuse for visiting the institution. He went to the main desk and asked for a copy of the New York Times for November 10, 1936. He was referred to the microfilm room, where the attendant produced a roll of film instead of the paper. He was then escorted to one of several viewing machines which were placed helter-skelter in a sort of alcove off to one side of a large room. Shelby put the film in the machine and looked at the image. Within half an hour, as he turned the crank, he dozed off. He was not disturbed and eventually woke up about five hours later.

He says, now, that at the time this seemed too good to be true, so a week later he went back again to see if it was an accident. He arrived about nine-fifteen in the morning and slept until almost four-thirty in the afternoon, again without being disturbed.

He since has become cognizant of several things. Most men in his condition who visit the Public Library go to the reading rooms. Either they have never heard of the microfilm room, or they underestimate its possibilities. Consequently, the attendants there have never met a real vagrant face to face. They assume that anyone who has heard of microfilm and wishes to use it is in search of learning. They check the film out to the applicant and never follow up. Moreover, the accommodations are very comfortable. The room is warm, and the upright film-display stands give a man an excellent place to rest his head.

For some time, Shelby put the microfilm room at the top of his list as a place of shelter, then suddenly he realized that it was a far more valuable place for pure entertainment. He never goes there to sleep now, but he often goes in early in the morning and spends the entire day reading. He has read all the old issues of the New York Times that are available on film, all his favorite comic strips from the date of their inception to the present, and every column Damon Runyon ever wrote.

A by-product of his many hours in the microfilm room is a system for playing the races which he developed by virtue of having been able to study every racing chart published in New York over the past twenty years. He has put this system to a test twice. At one time he worked quite steadily for almost a month and, with twenty-five dollars in his pocket, visited Aqueduct Race Track where he won eighty-seven dollars and forty cents, after expenses. Prudently, he took the money and bought himself a new suit of clothes, leaving the original twenty-five dollars untouched. A few days later he took the twenty-five and went to Belmont Park, where he lost it all. He hasn’t visited the track since, but he remains an avid racing fan and plays the horses regularly in the microfilm room. Nowadays, however, he saves all the races until cold weather sets in and plays during the winter months. He never looks at the racing results beforehand. “I might just as well be honest about it,” he says.

Shelby’s favorite of all forms of recreation is walking. He usually walks the streets of Manhattan for four to ten hours a day, covering anywhere from five to twenty-five miles. He has walked the full length of every up and down avenue in the city and crossed the island on every crosstown street. He is a walking encyclopedia on plaques and knows every traffic bottleneck and shortcut in town. He loves to window-shop and knows when most of the stores change their displays. At some time every day he manages to pass the window of the Christian Science Reading Room on Park Avenue and solemnly reads the Bible passage marked there.

At one time he estimated that he had about exhausted the possibilities of exploration in Manhattan and decided to concentrate on Brooklyn. He crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot one day, and on two other occasions took the subway. At the end of the third trip he gave the project up. “Walking in Brooklyn is like walking in Lansing, Michigan. I have the feeling I’ve seen everything before,” he says. “Manhattan isn’t like that.”

At present, Henry Shelby seems content to take things as they come. “I don’t know how long I’ll live this life,” he said not long ago, as he traced a design in the dirt with his foot. “I don’t have much trouble. I’ve never gotten drunk and lain in a doorway all day. My name’s never been on a police blotter for vagrancy. I haven’t had to beg. Maybe if things were, like they were twenty years ago, when everybody was a bum, I might change. Maybe something will happen that will force me to change, one way or another. Yes, I guess that’s about it, but it hasn’t happened yet, and things seem so easy and natural this way, the way they are now, that it’s just as though it was supposed to be that way. I’m just not going to look at the future. All I can tell anybody, now, is that I intend to be up at a little delicatessen I know on Broadway. They serve a hell of a good boiled beef dinner up there for sixty-eight cents.” He looked up at one of the big street clocks. “Which reminds me. If I’m going to get there by six o’clock, I’d better get going. Takes me almost an hour to walk it.” His listener asked him why he didn’t take the subway.

“Subways are for sleeping,” Shelby said, smiled, and walked off.


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March 1956

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