Man in The Box


Home in Box Had Its Problems; Alternative Does, Too

FEB. 21, 2008

The box is as long and low as a frontier coffin, and answers soundly a knock of the knuckles. It has four small wheels and a heavy chain that snakes through a hole on the side and wraps around a “No Standing” sign. Hundreds of neighbors and Little Italy tourists pass it every day, just off a strip of busy lighting stores on the Bowery at Broome Street. They pass the box with barely a glance.

One man does not pass: John Cornelius Foley, a 6-foot-2, lumbering slab of damaged Irish-American age 57 years this May. He limps slowly, his right leg below the knee as knotty and bulbed as an old root. He stops at the box, digs a key out of his jeans and stoops over, working the padlock on the chain. He pulls an end of the box open on its hinges and peers into the place he calls home.

Newcomers pay four-figure rents for studio apartments in this neighborhood. The actor Heath Ledger died just five blocks away in January.

Mr. Foley parked his box here last summer, hard by the curb and hidden by nothing, and gave himself an address on the side with a black pen: 340 Broome Street.

The box was a place to sleep that was better than a bench and, to Mr. Foley’s thinking, better than a men’s shelter. He crawled inside headfirst every night. His feet hung out the open end.

“I wasn’t going to have my head down here,” Mr. Foley said, standing at the opening of the box recently. “Somebody’s going to whack me with something.” He would drape a tarp over the open end (“like a Winnebago or a camper,” a buddy of his said).

But now the man in the box is giving it up. He is moving around the corner, and on an island of inventive and eccentric living quarters, the future of one of Manhattan’s most unusual — and surely smallest — homes is uncertain.

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Mr. Foley is one of a shrinking number of the old Bowery scamps, as much of a throwback as his middle name.

He is polite and patient with a stranger’s questions. He tells stories from his past that are acutely detailed, beginning with the phrase “To make a long story short,” before inevitably eddying off into subplots and tangents. There is not a tooth left in his head.

“I’m not a family man,” he said. He is well known among other homeless men in the neighborhood for his plywood home, which is frequently visited, even coveted.

Mr. Foley built it with a homeless friend whom he calls by a nickname, Fish. They found the plywood and nailed it together and caulked the cracks. “Fish wants to patent it,” Mr. Foley said. “We had this beautiful. Nice and nailed down.”

His path from a lakefront boyhood home in Worcester, Mass., to the box on Broome Street is paved with hard luck and hard drugs. To make a long story short: Mr. Foley was born in 1951, the first of seven children of a saloon owner and an Irish mother who was born on the boat over from Killarney in 1924. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a beautiful childhood,” he said.

He attended St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Mass., a Catholic preparatory school, where he played sports and worked on the side with a local exterminator. He graduated in 1969, but he put off college to open his own exterminating business. A ghost of this past life lives on in a quarter-page advertisement on Page 162 of the 1974 edition of the Worcester telephone directory: “John C. Foley, Licensed Professional Technician,” followed by illustrations of 12 varieties of pests that he promised to wipe out.

Business was good. “Up in my mother’s attic, I had shoeboxes full of money,” he said.

He played semiprofessional football in the Eastern Football League with the Webster Colonials. He played defensive back, his name found today on old rosters, but he quit after two years, seeing no way to join the National Football League.

He began experimenting with drugs around his friends, and discovered heroin, he said.

“I didn’t think I could get hooked,” he said. “I thought I could put it down anytime I wanted.”

Shortly after, in the mid-1970s, he was thrown from his motorcycle one night, not far from his mother’s home. He had swerved to dodge a car. His right leg was barely attached below the knee. “I was in a cast for 66 weeks,” he said.

He began taking painkillers, and made regular trips to New York in the early 1980s to buy drugs for himself and to sell to others back home. He moved here about 1984. He ran out of money and landed on the Bowery in the Providence Hotel, one of what used to be many single-room-occupancy buildings for men. Mr. Foley said he does not drink or use drugs anymore, and he visits a methadone clinic on Cooper Square six days a week to curb cravings for opiates.

He has a long arrest record in New York City, mostly for possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia, and a few arrests for selling. It is unclear how many times Mr. Foley was convicted. The city’s jails held a man named John Foley with the same birth date 22 times since 1983. Mr. Foley said that number sounded low. Eighteen of the arrests involved drugs. No one with his name and date of birth is listed in state correctional records, but Mr. Foley said he served 18 months in a minimum-security prison beginning in 1984. He collects small disability checks from the government.

Along the way, in SoHo, he met Fish, the co-creator and first resident of the box.

“Fish was moving the box all over town, the poor guy,” Mr. Foley said. When Fish found his own place in Brooklyn, he gave Mr. Foley the box.

Mr. Foley wrote his name and address on the side and chained it to the pole on Broome Street. He said the police told him he could stay if he did not cause any trouble. He found a battery-powered nightlight, and slept on top of one sleeping bag and beneath another.

He read the papers and Sports Illustrated until the streets outside hushed. “The worst nights were Friday and Saturday,” he said. “You had the drunks going by. They would tease me, bang on the box. Wiseguys.”

Box living soon lost its charm.

“It’s too small for me,” he said. “To turn over, I’ve got to go through all kinds of changes.” A little leak on top let in rain. “It’s like Chinese torture.”

Hot nights were brutal. “In the summer, it was a sweatbox,” he said. One day, his buddy Mike mistakenly unchained the box from the pole while Mr. Foley was asleep inside, and it rolled off the curb.

“A car comes along and sideswipes the box. He thought it was cardboard,” Mr. Foley said. He clambered out. “I must have looked like the abominable snowman. He took off. I was aggravated. My Irish come up.”

Finally, there was the simple, quiet shame of the thing.

“It carries a stigma,” he said. “ ‘Oh, you sleep in a box, John?’ ” His sisters found out: “They hate it.” His buddy Mike likes to joke: “God forbid he ever dies in the thing, he’d be all ready for potter’s field.”

Then, about three weeks ago, a neighborhood acquaintance made Mr. Foley an offer: a small bedroom in a small apartment as his roommate on Elizabeth Street, around the corner from the box, for $300 a month. Mr. Foley accepted.

One would imagine that his life would be drastically and happily transformed, but apartment life, too, has been less than perfect. The four flights of stairs are tough on his bad leg. Unwelcome surprises surface.

One recent day, Mr. Foley turned the faucet in the tub of his little bathroom, and the fixture popped out of the wall, spraying water. He cursed and dug a screwdriver out of a toolbox in a little closet, to no avail. He did not know that the water was also spraying behind the wall, flowing into apartments and hallways below his.

Firefighters came knocking. Four firemen and a lieutenant crowded into the tiny bedroom, facing Mr. Foley.

“These old buildings,” the lieutenant said, and gave the order to shut off the water main for the entire property.

“I never had a water problem in my box,” Mr. Foley mused. “I come out of the box and don’t you know, I’m in water up to my knees.”

He said he sometimes misses the simplicity of the box, where he still keeps some belongings and visits most days. But passing by last week, he discovered that he had accidentally left the key, and someone had opened the box and rooted around inside.

“That makes it final,” Mr. Foley said, angry at himself. “The box is going.”

He said at least three other men want it. He made an offer: For $20, it’s yours. Just roll it away.