Dan stood where he always does just outside the wooden doors of the 181st Street A train station in Washington Heights, wearing a soft gray beanie and a winter jacket, prepared for the cold that hadn’t yet come on a sunny November Monday morning. He had a Styrofoam cup of loose change nestled in his right hand.
A woman with bright pink lipstick and a matching scarf walked purposefully toward the subway station. But for a moment, she stopped. She asked Dan how he was today, handing him her cigarette before she walked into the station.
“Aw, thank you, sweetheart. Have a nice day.”
Dan, who prefers to go only by his first name for privacy, holds the door open at the downstairs entrance to the 181st Street stop each morning, welcoming a flow of frenzied commuters with “have a nice day.” He’s 40 years old with blue eyes and a boyish face, obscured by a cropped ginger beard. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes momentarily betray his age when he smiles. His voice, soft for his burly 6’2” frame, occasionally hints at his roots in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Even though he’s only been in the neighborhood for two years, Dan’s daily greeting has become something of a morning ritual in Washington Heights.
“I feel like he’s a fixture, like I expect to see him,” said Sarah Allen. She’s lived in the neighborhood for two years and estimates she sees Dan about two to three times a week.
Begging for money outside the subway isn’t what Dan imagined for himself. “I hate doing this, I really do,” he said. “The only thing that’s good about it is the people in the neighborhood.”
His day at the door begins around 9 a.m. Dan doesn’t ask for money outright. But he hopes to make around $25 to $30 a day, he said, enough to cover his meals. He leaves the subway station near 4 p.m.
Dan isn’t homeless, but he’s struggled to keep a job. He said 20 years ago, he was working for the Department of Public Works in Paramus, when he was pinned between the back of a recycling truck and the front of a car.
Disability checks cover the room he rents in Washington Heights but little else, he said, so he opens the subway station door during the day and applies for jobs at night.
“I’ve never had a hard time getting a job,” he said. “Because I’m limited right now to what I can do, it just makes my life a living nightmare.”
Dan came to the 181st Street A train station at the suggestion of his friend Richard, who was “working the door” before he passed away this year. Dan had a job with a locksmith in the Bronx at the time, but his paycheck was late one day. He needed money to get home. Richard let him hold the door. Sure enough, within five minutes, Dan had enough for a ticket. When the locksmith downsized, Dan lost his job and started opening the door full-time, alongside a small rotating group of door-holders. They all know each other, and work around each other’s preferred hours.
Dan has come to like the community. Washington Heights, located in upper Manhattan on the cusp of the Bronx, is a predominantly Dominican neighborhood with a strong observant Jewish presence. Fruit carts line the streets. Boom boxes blast bachata. Men in yarmulkes rush to and from classes at Yeshiva University. You’ll hear passersby speaking Spanish, Russian, and Yiddish-peppered English. It’s the kind of place where people still gossip with their grocers and know their next-door neighbors, a rarity in New York City.
Each day from in front of the door, Dan watches the neighborhood go by. People stop to chat. He knows commuters’ names and notices new faces around the holidays. Dan finds himself a witness to the day-to-day happenings of people’s lives.
“A lot of people don’t realize, it’s not the big things in this world that make it go ‘round,” Dan said. “It’s the small things.”
As a man walked out of the station, Dan asked him how he liked the new Justice League movie he rented the other day.
“I told him it’d be cool. He watched it with the kids, and they loved it,” Dan said, laughing. “You can’t go wrong with comic book movies, I’m sorry.”
Later that morning, Dan stooped to pat a German shepherd puppy, all paws and ears, pulling his owner toward the subway.
“Aw, you’re so big. You’re so big!” He turned to the woman. “How long have you had him, a couple months?”
Dan doesn’t just watch his neighbors’ dogs grow up. He sees the same kids walk through the subway each day, like a class from the preschool down the block. They have nicknames for him. One little girl calls him “Captain Monkey Pants.”
“Stuff like that just makes my day happier,” he said.
Just as Dan notes the coming and going of his neighbors, his neighbors notice him too.
Juvi Cruz, a cashier at the local Q Mart, sees Dan almost everyday. She runs into him whenever she takes the subway. They chat a little when he comes into her shop to exchange his coins for bills. Once, Cruz didn’t see him for three days, and it worried her.
“Unknowingly, he impacts the community,” she said.
Dan knows people worry about him. Last summer, he got a job remodeling an attic, so he didn’t come to the 181st Street station for a couple days. Some people from the neighborhood who had his phone number called, alarmed.
“I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ I was shocked at how people were really concerned,” he said.
Last Christmas, Dan realized how much the neighborhood cared. He was mugged, he said, losing $12 and his cell phone. When people in the neighborhood found out, they pooled money together to buy him a new phone.
“This neighborhood, it doesn’t remind me of New York City,” he said. “It reminds me of like some little suburb out in Iowa or something like that.”
Not everyone makes Dan feel welcome. He’s gotten comments like, “Get a job, you lazy bum,” or “You’re pulling that scam again?” Some find his chipper morning greeting annoying and snap at him, even people he knows.
“I had one lady rip me apart left and right, up and down, around in circles because I told her to have a good day,” he said.
But he tries not to react. Dan is a big believer in karma. He said a woman was particularly rude to him once. A week later, she came back with her foot in a cast and needed help opening the door. He didn’t think it was a coincidence.
Ultimately, karma is a driving force behind a lot of what Dan does. Dan needs the money, but he also thinks opening doors and telling people to have a nice day is important. He even tries to make an extra few dollars a day to buy a slice of pizza for the homeless people on 181st Street.
“Because if I try to help somebody else, maybe they’ll help somebody else out…” he said. “Eventually, maybe it’ll come back to help me out. And if it doesn’t –” his voice shrugged. “Well, that’s quite alright.”
As he waits for karma to do its work, Dan continues welcoming people to Washington Heights. Residents are “just so nice, so genuine…” he said. “If I ever get a job again, I’d still come back here on my day off just to say hi to people.”