John Carbonell and Sister Lauria
Fitzgerald picking up holiday treats to give the homeless
in the Bronx. Sister Lauria and Mr. Carbonell, who lives
in a tunnel below an abandoned train station, have come
to rely on each other
A man in a cave and
a Blauvelt Dominican have come to rely on each other to deliver
food to the homeless each Christmas.
Coming Out of His Tunnel and Helping a Bronx Nun
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
NEW YORK, --December 24, 2006 -- 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
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
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
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
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
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 Five in his room under the platform of an abandoned train station near
Yankee Stadium, where he has lived on and off since 1986. 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, despite her begging.
Johnny said he was simply tired. “Old age caught
me like a thief in the night,” he said. “My body is not
Sister Lauria contacted the Visiting Nurse Service of
New York, a nonprofit group that provides services for the mentally
disabled homeless. On Thursday, Johnny signed an application for housing
After he signed the papers, he went back to the cave.
He was beginning to feel ill from the flu. Later that evening, he crawled
out. He went to the thrift shop on Ogden Avenue. Sister Lauria was
there. She had been expecting him.