December 31st, 2007



Whitey has been shuffling along 7th Avenue for years and years - leaning ever more on his cane, smoking his cigarettes, greeting everyone with a cheerful, almost toothless grin. He calls all the women honey. No one really knows what he lives off, although surely the government has a hand, but he earns money by sweeping in front of the stores, and he gets his coffee for free.

He's an institution.

Today, though, things are changing. He walks into the places he keeps neat, the people who pay him by the month in cash to keep away trash and leaves, and he has to tell them bad news because he's an honest man and does not want anyone thinking ill of him.

He's not allowed to work anymore. So his doctors tell him. He believes them although he's feeling fine. So he has to tell people the truth, even though they'll feel sorry for him and he doesn't want that.

"I was in the hospital the past nine days," he says. "I have lung cancer. I quit smoking a month and a half ago, and now it's come up." He has a lollipop stick in his mouth. Maybe it helps the cravings he says he doesn't have. "I gotta have radiation treatment, but it's nothing. Just a couple minutes and it don't hurt. I'm feeling just fine. I can breathe." He demonstrates, taking a deep, painless breath. "I just gotta get these treatments every day." He doesn't mind, he says. The hospital is very local - he can walk there by himself. He's also trying to get his buddies to stop smoking, even though they don't believe he has the cancer.

Promising that he will see everyone around, he collects money for a month he won't work, wishes all a happy new year, and shuffles out the door, chewing on his lollipop stick.