John Steward's hands are swollen, chapped, and raw. His beard grows scraggly in thin lines down his cheeks and shows stubble across to his cheek bones. In the cold, two clear lines of snot rest above his mustache. Under his tattered hat, his head seems to be swollen between his eyes, and when he closes his mouth, his teeth, which look hollow, meet to almost make a sold line. When he talks or smiles he reveals a mouth with more empty spaces than teeth. He walks with a limp that even under layers of clothes he wore to protect himself from this year's erratic winter is visible. He says he almost lost his right leg to cellulitis. In the winter, it hurts to make a fist and the sores don't scab. With the cold weather, he says he can most feel the effects of shooting heroin. The skin on his swollen fingers is dead, cracked, and painful. His veins don't transport blood there anymore.
Though he says he relishes the freedom that comes from having no restrictions on his life, he acknowledges that this is not where he would like to end up. He says that he will get a cut from a movie that was screened for the first time a few weeks ago in an independent theater in the Village, that he'd like to use toward getting his own place.
But for now, he's content making due with what he's got-things to sell, a space to panhandle that won't kick him out, the Columbia students and professors who don't avert their eyes when they walk into Morton Williams, the space in the 125th Street Amtrak tunnel where he has been sleeping for over a decade. Before that, it was a hut in Riverside park, before that assorted places in and around Penn Station, and before that, a bevy of prisons and places he landed briefly before running again.
Steward is used to telling his story. He recounts his version of events to the people who pause to look at the eclectic collection of books he sells, to the students who pause on their way to buy groceries, to the man who lives in the neighborhood who made the movie.
The second oldest of eight, Steward says he grew up in Edison, New Jersey in a family of seven boys, one girl, a mother, and a father who was a priest in the Holiness Church. Though he now forms his own religious beliefs from a bevy of philosophers he's read-Steward says he's covered almost all of the core curriculum-he starts telling about his own life by talking about his father's religion. "The religion my family belonged to was like a cult," he says.
He ticks off the restrictions: no organized sports, no after-school clubs, no dancing, no high school prom, no holidays of the gift-giving kind, but lots of church. By the time he was 10, he was the focus of ridicule in school. "I was ostracized because I couldn't play no sports or join in any activities outside of school," he said. By the time he was 12, he was doing whatever he could to skip church.
When he was 14, he decided to deal with the kids who would tease him and chase him from the bus stop. He took the gun that he and his father used for hunting to the bus stop. "I scared everybody away ... I didn't shoot anybody-I shot in the air-but when I did, nobody bothered me anymore, but I guess that began another life for me because I realized the power of a gun."
The year after he graduated high school, he went to jail for armed robbery.
He used a shotgun to rob a bus. Steward said his accomplice turned him in. "He was from New York ... I was from the country, New Jersey. I knew nothing about New York. It was the big city."
Though he evaded jail for a few more months, the people who became his accomplices were the first people he counted as friends.
Eight months after he got out on parole, he was arrested for a burglary of a hardware store. "We robbed a safe ... and got caught, and I got another five years," he said, expressing little emotion. "I did two years of that, and I got out of jail again in 1967, by that time my father had brain cancer, and he died as a matter of fact six days before I got home." Steward used the $1,000 his mother gave him from his father's insurance policy to start a landscaping business. But it didn't last.
He found out that his 14-year-old sister was pregnant. "I wanted to find out who the baby's father was and I was gonna kill him," he said. Both his sister and her boyfriend said that the boyfriend was not the father. He asked his brothers for leads. He discovered that the girl had been abused by his father for nine years. "I was in and out of jail so much ... that I never really realized that there was anything going wrong in the house," he said.
But the father of the child was the girl's brother.
"When he [Steward's father] died, one of my brothers raped her, forced her to have sex with him, because he knew that my father was having sex with my sister, and never said anything about it. But when my father died, he forced her to have sex with him," Steward said.
Steward exacted revenge on his brother by stealing $700 from his bank account to give it to his sister, while his brother was serving in the military overseas. He never did anything more, first because his brother wasn't around, then because he "didn't want to expose my family to the scandal," and later because his sister got married and had another son, who Steward was afraid would try to murder the brother and would then end up in jail, if he heard about what had happened.
Despite the lax statute of limitations on charges of incest, Steward never pushed the case. According to Steward, the brother, last he heard, is living in California, married to an heiress, and working for Bell Laboratories. "If I go home now, and I see him, I probably will want to kill him," Steward said.
A year after his sister gave birth to her brother's child, Steward got 25 years for armed robbery.
In the time that he was in prison, he learned the ropes of the legal system. Convinced that he was not given fair representation in court, he took a law class in prison and then brought his own lawyer to court under civil rights abuse charges "because I got sold out. I got a 25 year sentence I wasn't supposed to get." The case made it to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I had him in court, in 1977, in the defendants chair ... I lost it, but it was great satisfaction to have him sitting there."
But before that, Steward used his legal knowledge to set up a non-profit to offer legal council to other prisoners. He was given a fair amount freedom that came in part from his role as legal help and in part from the fallout of a riot in the prison in 1973.
At that time, Steward associated himself with the Nation of Islam and joined in riots that were sparked by the sentiment that members of the Nation were discriminated against. Steward was locked in solitary confinement, but wrote to the civil rights commissioner asking for an investigation of the prison. He traded the right to attend weekly mosque services, the right to leave the prison once a month to see his family, to leave to go on speaking engagements, and a removal from solitary confinement for his promise not to testify in hearings about conditions in the prison. It was that freedom that allowed him to escape in 1974.
Still working on his own case and his non-profit, and getting drugs to bring back to prison every time he left, Steward describes his years in and out of prison as palatable. "I was among what you call the elite in the prison ... I had everything in prison. I had everything. I had money. I had drugs. I had girls, so for me, prison life wasn't bad," he said.
But in 1974, he applied for parole and was denied. A day later, on his next leave to visit a minimum-security prison to help with the legal process, he walked out of Rahway State Prison and didn't come back. Instead, with the help of Leroy Jones, he fled to Omaha, Nebraska. "Eighteen hours after I escaped from Rahway State Prison, I was in Omaha. I met a girl there. Three days after I met her, I moved in with her." Then, while he was trying to get a job, the FBI caught up with him, and he petitioned for political asylum, jumped bail, and fled to Chicago, where he lived in vacant buildings on Chicago's South Side for two years before he was caught again. The years that followed were filled with parole, parole violations, and jail. In 1988, after leaving prison on education leave, he finished his sentence. He never finished his degree. "I dropped out after I got my loan," he said, laughing.
He bounced around in the years that followed. He moved to Penn Station until the city renovated it and "kicked all the homeless people out." He moved to midtown, and then up by Columbia. "The area is different because you've got academics around here ... I can talk to anybody about anything, and most of the people, especially the students, they enjoy talking to me and I enjoy talking to them," he said. "Basically it's not as hectic up here as it is downtown. A lot of students are really afraid to talk to people like us, but I relieve that fear, once they talk to us."
He comes down to the Columbia area every evening after sleeping in the 125th Street Amtrak tunnel during the day. He makes money by panhandling, selling books, and recycling cans. On a bad day, he makes $40 dollars, on a good day, he makes $60. On some of the best-on days when someone has donated enough books that he can sell them to booksellers-he's made a few hundred.
He gets a lot of food from what stores have thrown away. He gets Starbucks sandwiches after closing and loaves of breads from grocery stores. He also finds most of his clothes in other people's cast-aways. At 65 years old, he's surprised that he's still alive. "I never expected to live past 45," he said.