Amid Manhattan's Wealthiest, a Beggar Found Open Hearts
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
To many New Yorkers, the Upper East Side is a clubby, outsiders-beware territory, where immaculately uniformed doormen and snooty co-op boards guard the gates for billionaires and their personal trainers; a sometimes heartless province where poodles get manicures but maids get minimum wage.
But for Richie Spagnole, who lived for a decade on the streets of the city's richest neighborhood, the Upper East Side was a place of astounding generosity. Store owners handed out bagels in the morning, chicken wings for dinner and sausage pizza for snacks. His pleas for money, he says, were often met with $50 contributions. In winter he wrapped himself in donated down coats. On frigid nights, he slept in the boiler rooms of tenement buildings. He brushed his teeth and washed his armpits there, too.
When Mr. Spagnole had had enough of crack cocaine and of being homeless, it was a local institution, the family-owned Rosedale Fish Market on Lexington Avenue and 79th Street, that offered him a job as a deliveryman. And not only did Rosedale hire him; the market's general manager found him an apartment and paid the first month's rent and security deposit out of her own pocket � an act she modestly confirms only with prodding.
Now coming up on his fifth anniversary off the streets, Mr. Spagnole, 57, a short man with an infectious smile and a rat-a-tat-tat speaking style, still shakes his head in amazement at his own admittedly unconventional story. "I had a good time out there," he says. "That's why it took me so long to come in."
"Still, I was very lucky," he says. "These people have been great to me. I couldn't have done it without them."
Mr. Spagnole is a man of energy and humor, so it is easy to imagine him as a charming panhandler. It is more of a stretch to understand how he became homeless in the first place. By his own account, he came from a good family. His mother was a rhythm-and-blues singer, and his stepfather was a bartender. They lived in a house on East 123rd sStreet. When he was 17, his stepfather was hit by a car, and Mr. Spagnole quit school to help out. He went into the military briefly, but was discharged soon after but was discharged without merit. He married at 19 and had a daughter, but was swiftly divorced. "I was immature then," he confesses.
He was drifting between jobs � cameraman, printer's assistant � and struggling with a drug habit that landed him in a methadone program. When his mother died, he went to live at East 113th Street to take care of his stepfather, who was now living in public housing. He stayed for 12 years, but he was never put on the lease. In the summer of 1989, his stepfather became so ill he had to be institutionalized. Mr. Spagnole came home on Aug. 22 and found himself padlocked out.
Shame, he said, prevented him from staying with friends or even contacting his teenage daughter. He lived on the roof of the apartment complex for several nights, but when he was discovered by neighbors he left the area entirely. By then he was smoking crack, "to be social."
At first he went to the homeless shelter on Ward's Island, he says, but when he went to sleep the first night another resident set his pants on fire. He awoke unhurt and tamped out the blaze, but swore never to go back. He then decided to settle on the Upper East Side because he knew it was a fancy neighborhood and expected it to be safe.
In his first days he tried collecting bottles, but decided the payoff was too small for the work. So he began panhandling and soon was raking it in, sometimes often at the dizzying rate of $2,000 a week, he said. The money disappeared dizzyingly too, as it financed binges of drugs and women in his old neighborhood and the occasional $39-a-night motel or change of clothes.
Many of the specifics of his stories from his days on the streets cannot be verified, but restaurant owners from around the neighborhood still remember him warmly from his days as a beggar.
Bart Potenza, owner of the vegetarian Candle Cafe on Third Avenue, used to give Mr. Spagnole muffins and fruit and remembers him as a "clean" homeless man who "always cared about us."
George Pavlounis, who owns the Wrap N Run on Lexington at East 78th, agrees. "He was a special homeless guy," said Mr. Pavlounis, who sometimes gave Mr. Spagnole money or a sandwich. "He wasn't dirty or smelly, and he was helpful. He would put a quarter in the meter if he saw it had expired and the meter maid was coming."
Being helpful was part of Mr. Spagnole's come-on. He told restaurant owners that he would not beg in front of their places during the day and would keep an eye out for thieves at night if they would just donate leftover food. He also did favors like clearing snowy sidewalks with shovels "borrowed" from local buildings. For the employees of one restaurant he was the lookout, watching for the police while they gambled inside.
Shop owners rewarded him, he says, with chicken wings by the bagful and enough moo shu pork and tacos to feed himself and some of the other guys on the street.
But Mr. Spagnole's biggest asset was charm and the funny comeback. One day when he was begging in front of a swanky Park Avenue address, a large richly-dressed man responded to his request for change by turning his pockets inside out and saying he had no money. "Too bad," Mr. Spagnole said sympathetically and took a dollar from his own pocket and handed it over. The man came back an hour later with a $100 bill, an amount he gave Mr. Spagnole maybe a dozen more times over the years.
Mr. Spagnole's escapades were not always benign. He and a partner once stole a new bathtub from one building, sold it to a superintendent of another building, then stole it again and sold it again. And then there was the man who frequented Sam's Place, a bar that was on Third Avenue, who would never give Mr. Spagnole any money. So he placed a beer bottle under the wheels of the unwilling patron's red Rolls Royce and waited. When the man left the bar and got into the car, Mr. Spagnole stopped him, pointed out the bottle and received a $50 tip for saving the tires.
At one point in his street career, in 1993, he was arrested for stealing liquor from a local bar and spent eight months in jail. And in 1994, Mr. Spagnole said, he was arrested for stealing bicycles and spent 20 months in a detention camp. In both cases, he gave the police false names. (He says he did it to protect his family from shame.). A check of Mr. Spagnole's records with the Manhattan District Attorney's office did not reveal additional arrests, but it did not rule out the possibility that he was incarcerated for additional crimes under yet another alias. Those are moments he is not proud of, he says, but there were also moments of redemption. Like the time he saw a woman who was a regular donor being mugged at knifepoint. He went to her defense, and she escaped unharmed. An hour later her husband found him as he was bedding down for the night on a nearby stoop to give him $1,000. "When you are on the street 24/7 you see lots of things," he explains.
Yet life on the street could be relentlessly hard. Late one evening during his first year as a homeless man, Mr. Spagnole was beaten by a gang of youths who crushed his nose and knocked out his top teeth. Eventually, he grew savvy and learned which landlords would look the other way when he broke into their boiler rooms to sleep on frigid nights or to wash up every few days.
In warm weather he often slept on the pavement. He carried nothing but what he wore. "I never was one of those homeless guys carrying around sacks," he says a bit disdainfully.
In the winter of 1998-99, exhausted by the grind, he decided he would get off of drugs and save some money. He went back to the Ward's Island shelter and lucked into a room with just two other men. Then, one day as he was panhandling in a favorite spot on Third Avenue at 79th Street, he got another lucky break.
Dorian Mecir, the manager of the Rosedale Fish Market, asked, him if he would like a job. Ms. Mecir, who has a golden mane of hair and a warm, unpretentious manner, remembers her reasoning: "It was February. It was cold out. We needed a delivery person, and over the years he had been reliable at doing odd jobs. And as I said to Mr. Neuman" � Bob Neuman, the owner, now deceased � "one of the big plusses is that he knows the neighborhood. You'll never have to explain where Fifth or Park are."
Mr. Spagnole had received tenuous promises of work before, but here was a concrete offer. He jumped at the chance even though, as he says, he would "have to take a pay cut." The early days were touch and go as he struggled with the work, which was tough on his legs, and he struggled with his addiction. He was even thrown out of the shelter for being in a fight. He would not have made it through, he says, without help from Ms. Mecir and Mr. Neuman.
Mr. Neuman paid for Mr. Spagnole to stay in a hotel after he was tossed from shelter and then asked his employees to help find him an affordable apartment. "We called every broker in all five boroughs," recalls Ms. Mecir recalls, "and it still took six weeks."
Eventually they found a $600 apartment. Ms. Mecir and her husband paid the first month's rent and deposit from their own pocket.
Mr. Spagnole rewarded their trust, Ms. Mecir said. After his first day at work, she recalled, he returned to the store 20 minutes after leaving, this time with a haircut, and said, " `I just wanted to show you how I spent my first day's pay.' " He never missed work, he never complained even when the deliveries where on the far side of town, and he won customers over with his charm and free tastes of Rosedale's signature fresh tuna salad.
Work and shelter would have been enough, of course, but Rosedale gave Mr. Spagnole another gift. He had lost touch with his daughter, Lelia Spagnole Negron, when he became homeless. The last time she saw him, she remembers, she was 15 and he had come to her home at her mother's behest to warn her against a slightly older man from the neighborhood who was walking her home from the train station.
During their first years apart she had tried searching for him but eventually gave up when she heard through friends that he was homeless. She married Pete Negron, that tall stranger whom her father had been worried about, and had two boys. She said she often wished the two could have met because they had so much in common, right down to loving the Yankees. But Mr. Negron, an asbestos removal specialist for the Port Authority, died in the Sept.ember 11th attacks.
It was in part the lack of a man in her boys' lives that made her plug her father's name into an Internet search engine in January 2002. Rosedale's address came up. She left a message at the store, and he called back the next day at 9 a.m. "Stay there, Dad, I am coming to get you," she yelled into the phone.
When she saw his face, smashed from that first year on the street, she thought he was an impostor, but the jokes confirmed that he was really her father. Tentatively she took him to see her two boys, now 4 and 13, but they recognized him as family at once. "In a matter of seconds, my kids were like, `Grandpa, Grandpa,' " she recalls. "Just hearing them say that was really emotional for all of us."
Ok, I'd just like to point out one thing: he made $2,000 a week. Ok. $2,000 a week. I'm in the wrong line of work. If I want to send my kids to expensive private schools, I should be freaking panhandling. If I got them and my dad to join in (and my kids would be big winners: both insanely cute and kids, so they'd get the pity angle too), we could be making like $200,000 a year easy, even counting for the time the kids were in school.