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Coming Out of His Tunnel and Helping a Bronx Nun
12/24/2006 Human Interest
by Manny Fernandez
from the New York Times www.nytimes.com
In a city of lights, Johnny Five lives in the dark. He calls his home a cave, but it is really a kind of dungeon, deep in the crevices below an abandoned train station in the Bronx.
He slips inside at the edge of a high cliff not far from Yankee Stadium. As he crouches along a narrow passageway of concrete slabs and steel beams, stepping farther and farther into the subterranean belly of a station platform, the sounds of the city slowly fade. Sunlight and moonlight vanish. Johnny’s makeshift room is in a far corner, past garbage bags, old mattresses and mini-stalactites.
He has been bitten by bedbugs. A mysterious gray goo clings to the walls. His air shafts are holes the size of a fist. It is stiflingly hot in summer and so cold in winter that a quart of milk freezes in 15 minutes.
He loves it here.
He hates it here.
The cave is the confessional where he talks to God, the bedroom where he watches kung-fu movies on a portable DVD player, the hideaway where he drinks and gets high. It offers him what many of New York City’s homeless seek beyond mere shelter: a dark place to shut out the world. He has lived here off and on since 1986, settling in on a more permanent basis about eight years ago.
“There’s times I come here and say there’s no place like home,” he said. “I know where I’m going, where I am. This is hell.”
This Christmas, Johnny, whose real name is John Carbonell, will emerge from his cave and walk to Ogden Avenue. There, he will meet Sister Lauria Fitzgerald, who has looked after the homeless in the Bronx for nearly two decades.
Johnny will not receive help that day. He will give it. He and Sister Lauria will hop into a van and deliver food to the homeless.
This is Sister Lauria’s holiday tradition, and it has become Johnny’s, too. Last year, on Thanksgiving, they walked toward a bridge in the West Farms neighborhood where the homeless congregate.
Down some steps, they came upon a statue of Our Lady of Charity, or Caridad del Cobre, the Patroness of Cuba. Past the statue, Johnny helped lift Sister Lauria over a wall, so she could reach the homeless in the trestles of the bridge. They brought hot chocolate, socks and gloves.
They have come to rely on each other and to trust each other, the man in the cave and the Catholic nun in the Bronx.
She is a member of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Blauvelt, N.Y. She wears blue jeans and sneakers. Her father arrested drug addicts as a narcotics detective for the New York Police Department; she has befriended them. She works for the nonprofit Highbridge Community Life Center and manages a thrift shop on Ogden Avenue run by Siena House, a former convent, which is now a women’s shelter.
He is a high school dropout and ex-convict known in the neighborhood as Johnny Five, a nickname taken from the robot character in the 1988 movie “Short Circuit 2.” He is 44, a thin, muscular man with a few missing teeth and a raspy voice. He was born in Manhattan but grew up in the Bronx. He ran away from home as a teenager. He often walks by the building where he used to live.
Sister Lauria is of Irish ancestry; Johnny has Puerto Rican roots. She prays an “Our Father”; Johnny raps his own version of it. Johnny has his cave; Sister Lauria lives in a shelter, at Siena House. They finish each other’s sentences and steal each other’s sayings. Johnny is perhaps the only homeless man in the Bronx who regularly uses the Irish expression “Faith and Begorra!”
She said of him: “If I don’t see Johnny, I worry. A day or two, and I’m ready to kill him.” He said of her: “I don’t even call her Sister Lauria. I call her Mother Lauria.”
Sister Lauria helps Johnny with clothes and basic necessities like flashlights, sleeping bags and blankets; Johnny helps Sister Lauria, working as her unofficial Spanish translator, thrift-shop assistant and errand runner.
Beyond clothes and food, she has provided Johnny with something more: She has helped him retain his humanity amid his caveman existence. It is primarily because of Sister Lauria that Johnny lives in two worlds — above ground, and below it — instead of just one.
Sister Lauria literally gave Johnny an identity, printing out an ID card for him from the Highbridge Community Life Center. She once asked him to go to a United Way office in Manhattan to pick up a $1,000 check for the center. Johnny got the check and brought it back. “He’s never let me down when it came to something important,” she said.
In September, Sister Lauria attended a party honoring Sister Mary Doris, the director and founder of Siena House. Her guest was Johnny. Standing in the auditorium of Sacred Heart School, Johnny rapped an ode to Sister Mary.
Johnny makes up raps as he walks the neighborhood — for the U.P.S. drivers, for the Pepsi deliverymen. Johnny is called the mayor of Ogden Avenue, a fast-walking, fast-talking man of the street, chatting up merchants as he munches on Sugar Pops cereal. He survives on a monthly government assistance check and the dollars he earns doing odd jobs for Sister Lauria and others in the neighborhood. His mind races with stories and theories. He has told Sister Lauria that he is schizophrenic.
He talks about religion: “I don’t believe in God. I know God. That’s the difference.” He talks about his dreams of striking it rich: “I wish I was to hit the Lotto. $250 million? You would see me on the corner giving out fliers. Such and such day I’m giving out money to families.” He talks about why he carries around a bulb of garlic: “It brings out the flavor in the Cheetos.”
Johnny says he invented two-tone jeans in 1986, but someone stole his design, which he said he created under the influence of angel dust. Asked his addictions, he replied: “A little bit of everything.” It is nothing he is proud of. “There are times I told the devil, You fooled me,” he said. “You sold me a dream.”
Sister Lauria said she accepts Johnny for who he is. “There is no way that you can live on the street, anyplace, and not have an addiction that numbs you,” she said.
When Johnny visits Sister Lauria at the thrift shop or at a Highbridge office down the street — as they sit and tease each other, joking about the time they drove to City Island to pick up some donations and Johnny ordered frog legs — it is easy to forget that Johnny sleeps underground.
He works hard to keep himself as clean and presentable as he can. He washes his body with rubbing alcohol. He keeps antibacterial spray, baby powder and other cleaning products in the cave.
Over the years, Johnny has tried to make the cave feel like a real home. He sleeps next to a small wooden jewelry box on a plastic shelf he uses as a nightstand. His bed is made up of milk crates and plastic foam strips and a baby’s mattress wrapped in a garbage bag. There are boxes of magazines, old mirrors, brown sugar in a Ziploc bag to sweeten his coffee.
In the dark, he once hit his head on the end of a steel beam. He learned to make his own light, gluing sheets of aluminum foil to the walls to catch the reflection of the flames from candles and cans of Sterno. But it is never enough. Inside the mysterious netherworld of the cave — where mushrooms grow, where the air turns his can of powdered lemonade rock solid — it feels as if the weight of the city is bearing down.
“There’s no place like home,” he said one afternoon inside the cave. “And home is Mom and Dad. Not home my own, or whatever. Mom and Dad. Yeah. That’s home. No kid should leave home before his time. Never drink no wine before its time, and never leave your mom and dad before it’s time.”
Several months ago, Johnny told Sister Lauria he wanted out of the cave. He wanted her to help him find housing. She said it was the first time in the eight years she has known him that he expressed any interest in leaving the cave for good. Before, she said, he would never consider it, d