February 22, 2008


John Cornelius Foley, 56, on Broome Street between Bowery and Elizabeth Streets, where he lived for months in a plywood box.
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 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.

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...

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