Central Park, New York: Pride of the south

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Central Park, New York: Pride of the south

He was at the south-west entrance to Central Park, sitting by himself with a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag on a cool September afternoon.

Pride was his name, Pride Wilson from Louisiana but mostly Kentucky. Been in New York maybe five, maybe seven years.

We walked into the park where yuppies in expensive workout gear would glide by on their in-line skates, and young lovers hand-in-hand crossed to the other side to avoid the slightly staggering Pride and his bottle in a bag.

Pride had been born in rural Louisiana and had such a love of horses he wanted to be a jockey. He'd been a good rider, "but then I grew some". So he worked in stables and became a groomer. He moved to Kentucky for work, had some good jobs.

Then it fell apart. Something about his wife and children and him splitting up, then he'd lost his job because of his drinking.

He decided he'd come to New York where he had some friends. He'd stayed in a brownstone somewhere in Brooklyn with a gay guy who hit on him so he left -- "I ain't no gay," he shouted to no one in particular -- and then he'd taken to the streets.

We stopped underneath a tree while he adjusted the meagre belongings he carried in small bag tied with a dirt-blackened rope.

He'd got a crack habit and ended up in Bellevue, New York's notorious psychiatric hospital. Then, after he didn't know how long, he'd been released. He'd thought about going back to Louisiana, but he had no money to get there and there probably wasn't anyone there who knew him no more anyhow.

He now lived in an abandoned building but didn't like staying there, too many crazy people, and since he'd stopped smoking crack he didn't like to be around them kinda folk. So he lived on the streets. He lifted his shirt to show me the purple welt in his side where he had been shot one time. When it got cold he drank Night Train or Thunderbird. They are the cheap wines favoured by those with no money and fewer prospects.

He had some Night Train in the bag, did I want to try some?

I looked at his grubby hands, the filthy bag and waved thanks, but no thanks.

He wasn't offended, but took it out of the bag to show me anyway.

A cop car carrying two uniformed officers pulled up on the path a few metres away. They had seen an old black bum and a long-haired white guy standing beneath a tree with a bottle. They called Pride over and talked to him in firm but respectful way.

"You know the law, sir. You can't have the bottle out of the bag, sir. So I'm gonna have to ask you to empty it out here in front of me."

Pride did, then took the empty bottle to the trashcan while the cops watched.

They drove off.

They's jes doin' their job, Pride said.

We walked back to the street. Dusk was dropping and it was getting cold. He thought he might sleep in the city tonight, he knew a place where a broken window at street level from a factory below blasted out warm air. He'd try to get there early to get a good position. Others knew about it too, there'd be a few of them huddled around for warmth.

We said goodbye and I gave him some money.

Thank you kindly, sir. You take care 'yo self, he said as he crumpled the note into a pocket.

I guess he spent it on Night Train or Thunderbird, and for a while Pride could once more disappear.

For other travel stories by Graham Reid, see here for his two award-winning travel books.

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