Making the Journey From Menace to Neighbor, All on One Brooklyn Block
The time had come for Gene to leave the ground-floor apartment, as he knew it would. The owner who let him stay there rent-free had been dead for more than a year, and the estate wanted it back. With the marshal at the door, Gene delivered his cats to a neighbor, then bundled blankets, pillows and some clothes. Parked right outside was his next home: a 1996 Ford Explorer. He moved into the back seat. That was Feb. 27, 2015.
One year later, Gene still sleeps on a mildewing futon in that sport utility vehicle, parked on the same tree-lined street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He will turn 60 in May.
An organic chemist who did postdoctoral research at Columbia University, Gene shares credit on more than 40 patents for work he did at a major pharmaceutical maker, a job he left 12 years ago. Gene is his middle name, and he asked not to be further identified.
Although he has not physically moved, what has happened to him over the last year can be mapped as a journey, still in progress, from nameless menace to neighbor, a change both in his trajectory and in the esteem of those with whom he shares one small block of New York City.
"For a while there was a kind of a 'not in my backyard' feeling, but people came through in great ways," said Burkhard Bilger, a Fifth Street resident who, with his wife, Jennifer Nelson, played a central role in gathering support for Gene. The most important things, Mr. Bilger said, Gene "has done for himself, once he got a little help."
Here, then, is a short version of one man's odyssey, heartening and resourceful in parts, unexplained or inexplicable in others.
Few people on Gene's block knew him during the seven years he lived at 375 Fifth Street before moving into his S.U.V., and those were mostly glancing acquaintanceships. So, like thousands of people living stealthily out of vehicles in the parking lots of Wal-Marts and hospitals, in parks and on untrafficked lanes, Gene was scarcely noticed for months. Perhaps the etiquette of anonymity that blankets life in New York shielded him even on Fifth Street, with its pulse of work and school, dog-walking and car-parking.
By last summer, though, word and rumor were spreading on the street's email exchange — ordinarily used for organizing block parties — about the unnamed Man Living in His Car. He was pouring urine from a bedpan onto the curb. The woman fostering his cats learned that he had copied her key. And what about the small children on the block? "It was quickly whipping up into a frenzy, as things sometimes do on that Listserv," Todd A. Wiener, a resident, said.
An unsigned note was left on Gene's windshield. "The 5th Street Block Association is having a lot of online discussion about your situation," it said. "Our neighbors are concerned and feeling unsettled."
Of course, Gene said, he understood that people on the block would not want him staying in his Explorer. "I didn't want to be living there, either," he said.
He had chosen his car as a refuge, he explained, to stay clear of people who knew him and the hazard of pity. "On some TV series, one of the characters said, 'The thing that's toughest about going home is that people want to know: What happened to you?'" Gene said.
He does not have much of an answer for that.
By his account, much of it corroborated in public records, Gene grew up in Boise, Idaho, one of two children. A voracious reader as a child, he discovered chemistry in college, and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A grant from the National Institutes of Health paid for his postdoctoral work. At a large pharmaceutical company, he worked with a team on variations of an immunosuppressant, and compounds useful in treating diabetes. Records list him as a co-inventor on at least 44 "composition of matter" patents in the United States and Europe. (The patents are owned by the company.)
Gene said he was married for three years in the late 1990s, and records show that he once owned a house in Princeton Junction, N.J. By 2004, he said, he was unhappy in his job and living on the East Side of Manhattan. When his mother, who was living in Arizona, had a stroke that year, he said, he took a three-month leave of absence, and never went back. Why not? Perhaps, he speculated, the trauma of 9/11 had affected him. And, he said, he had been unable to find a position close to his old rank. "They wanted someone cheap," he said. "They weren't going to pay $115,000 for a bench chemist."
He moved to Brooklyn and took a job with Barnes & Noble in Park Slope that paid about $10 an hour. He also managed to run up $40,000 in credit card debt. How?
"Going out, eating," he said. "Like I was still making $115,000."
When he needed a new place to live, a co-worker at the bookstore, Bob Matheson, offered him a ground-floor apartment in the building that he owned with his wife, Diane. Gene moved there in 2008. An $800 rent was discussed but he never ended up paying anything, he said, because of problems in the apartment.
Ms. Matheson led a hermitic existence, and after Mr. Matheson fell ill, Gene said, he recalled accompanying her in 2013 to a medical appointment. She told him she had not been outside "since Bush v. Gore," Gene said. Mr. Matheson died, and some months later, in fall 2013, Ms. Matheson also died. Under arrangements made by the Mathesons, he was given a year to move out of the house, Gene said, and was offered $10,000 by the estate to leave earlier. Instead, he stayed until he had to go. (Less than a month later, the building was sold for $2 million; renovated, its three apartments are in contract to sell for an aggregate of $4.8 million, according to the website StreetEasy.)
Knowing that eviction was on the horizon, did he take any steps to find another place? "I was hoping for the best," Gene said. "I didn't think it would last very long."
By folding down the back seat of the Explorer, he had room for a futon. "I can stretch out fully," Gene said.
He was let go by Barnes & Noble in late 2014, he said. While still covered under the company's health insurance, he had gotten a new hip. His health problems continued: He developed severe arthritis in an ankle, and broke a toe.
For hangouts, he turned to McDonald's, public libraries and, for a while, the emergency department at New York Methodist Hospital. There, in the waiting room, groups of homeless people — white like Gene, and every other hue of humanity — watched the television. "Any place with a public bathroom," he said.
He used an old laptop to download television shows and movies. "That's what kept me sane," he said. "It centered me. One of the first things that happen, people lose respect for themselves."
He paused: "What bothered me was the lack of respect other people had. They don't know you, and they don't respect you."
When his unemployment benefits ran out, he occasionally collected bottles and cans to get the nickel deposits. "Plastic and cans are best — the bottles are heavy," he said. "It meant I had some money so I could wash clothes."
The people he met on the streets were far from drug-addled, he said. "There's no way you can be a substance abuser and not have any money," he said. "Once in a while, they'll have some beer. To feel a little better about themselves. To feel human." He said he had an occasional beer himself.
At a soup kitchen on Fourth Avenue, he made a few friends, he said, but most people were very guarded. When he gave one man a tip about Sunday dinners, the man repaid him by telling him about a church that offered use of a shower once a week.
In a series of recent conversations, Gene was cheerful, seemingly unfazed by his circumstances. It helped that he avoided family or old friends, he said.
"Because I didn't see these people, it made me a little stronger, in a way," he said. "It made my demeanor better. You're not constantly reminded — just by looking at other people — of your situation, compared to what it was."
Last year, with the conversation on the email exchange becoming hostile, and Gene having rebuffed a pastor who had offered help, Mr. Wiener had a chat with him on a stoop. Maybe Gene could move his vehicle down the block. The residents of the house nearest to where the S.U.V. was parked most of the time were tired of it and him.
Ms. Nelson told him about a soup kitchen. She and Mr. Bilger found a lawyer who could help Gene apply for disability benefits, based on the condition of his ankle.
The Explorer's registration and inspection had expired, so it was racking up parking tickets. The fan belt had to be replaced.
Mr. Wiener, a professional fund-raiser, invited people on the block to chip in for concrete expenses.
"The car is the guy's house — if it has tickets, it gets towed," Mr. Wiener said. The group paid for the tickets and to store his belongings at the U-Haul on Fourth Avenue. "A very good bathroom at the U-Haul place," Gene said.
At the library, he said, he filled out forms and job applications, but dozens of drug patents could not get him hired as a pharmacist's assistant at a CVS store. He ate Thanksgiving dinner with Mr. Bilger, Ms. Nelson and their family.
"Afterwards, when I got back to the car, there was a Thanksgiving dinner wrapped in foil on the hood of the car," Gene said.
Caroline Batzdorf, another Fifth Street resident, said she was gratified by the shift in attitudes. "Some of the people who were literally saying, 'What's this person doing on our block?' are now, 'Thank God there's humanity in people,'" she said. "But what if this were a person of a different race? Who didn't have a Ph.D.? Who someone didn't know?"
Mr. Wiener said getting money was simple — in all, about $5,000 was given by 10 people, and some of it remains unspent — but the nuts and bolts of helping someone with layers of problems took more attention than just writing a check: medical appointments, the motor vehicle agency, the disability application. "It wasn't that hard to do — you just had to be willing do it," Mr. Wiener said. "It turns out that people who mean well aren't actually willing to do much."
Gene reported that his disability claim had been approved, and that he had been awarded about $2,500 a month. Though some people on Fifth Street are skeptical that he has righted himself, and a few friends worry that he has gotten too comfortable in the Explorer, he insisted that was not true. He plans to move to Wisconsin in the summer, he said, where he went to graduate school and where the money will go further.
On a walk through the neighborhood, he passed the soup kitchen where he had often eaten. Was he going to stop for lunch?
He shook his head.
"I'm on the other side now," he said.
Elyssa D. Durant. Ed.M.