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December 24, 2005
They Gather to Remember Mama

by Dan Barry

Louis Napolitano remembers how it was. The restored terminal of today, all light and polish, bears little resemblance to its look and feel back then. With its large windows darkened and its glorious ceiling covered in soot, the building seemed cast in Dickensian dusk, while in nearly every nook and cranny, the homeless.

Back then Mr. Napolitano was a transit officer working the overnight shift, the graveyard. He strolled the marble floors with his nightstick twirling, enforcing the terminal's homeless policy of "Get 'em up and keep 'em moving" - especially from 1:30 to 5:30 in the morning, when it was closed to the public.

His job was often wordless. A tap of his nightstick on a bench was enough to tell a drowsy loiterer to move on. Just the way he set his face could signal to a cluster of homeless people that they were O.K. there, he was just passing by - or that they had to scatter, another commuter had complained to the stationmaster.

Mr. Napolitano grew to appreciate the unspoken bond among the hidden, late-night people of Grand Central: the police officers, the floor cleaners, the restaurant workers and, yes, the homeless. "The longer you're here, you see it's just people trying to survive," he said yesterday, sipping coffee in the terminal's lower level while a disheveled man browsed through a garbage can nearby.

He eventually established his own unofficial "no-fly zone" policy - "After closing, don't come out where people can see you" - and got to know many of the denizens. The young girls named April and Tina. The man called Camacho. And that hunched panhandler everyone called Mama.

Mama used to sit on a milk crate on what was called Kitty Kelly Ramp, leading into the terminal from 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. She was short, stout and bundled up in a housedress and pants. She spoke little English, so the bowl in her lap usually did her talking for her.

Tina Haluszka also remembers Mama, just as she remembers Grand Central.

Back then, Ms. Haluszka was a girl of 16 who sensed that her mother would be better off with one less mouth to feed. She felt the pull of Grand Central, where she found the support she sought among the homeless and destitute. She begged for money, smoked dope and slept near steam pipes beneath train platforms.

And Mama? Well, Mama watched out for young women living the street life. She handed out clean clothes from the Salvation Army and shared the rolls and doughnuts that a terminal bakery gave her every morning. In return, people like Ms. Haluszka gave her cigarettes and shared their food from Burger King.

"She always talked that we were her family," Ms. Haluszka recalled while sitting with Mr. Napolitano, as another unkempt man retrieved a half-empty cup of orange juice from the same garbage can.

Early Christmas Day in 1985, the temperature hovered in the 20's. The witching hour of 1:30 came, and Mama moved to an exposed edge of the terminal to rest on the concrete floor. When the doors to the terminal reopened, she lay down on one of the wooden benches in the main waiting room.

Christmas Day was usually the best day of the year for the panhandlers of Grand Central. But when Ms. Haluszka walked in early that afternoon, she noticed several paramedics, and soon learned that a regular had not responded to a nightstick's bang on a bench. Then she saw Mama, dead of pneumonia. "I seen her boots," she recalled. "Her old-lady boots."

BUT this Christmas story carries some cheer.

A man named George McDonald, who as a volunteer used to give Mama sandwiches, arranged to have her buried in a Queens cemetery, rather than in potter's field. Her death inspired him to create the Doe Fund, a homeless program that emphasizes self-sufficiency; it now has 350 employees and 800 participants in its Ready, Willing and Able program.

And tomorrow morning at 11, another Mama Doe candlelight vigil will be held at Grand Central Terminal, her last home. Mr. Napolitano, now the Doe Fund's director of security, will be there, as will Ms. Haluszka, now one of its dispatchers.

These two acquaintances of Mama finished reminiscing, and walked out of the building they know so well. The waiting room where Mama died is now an events hall, filled yesterday with holiday crafts. And in the spot where she used to sit with a bowl, a man with a white coat pulled over his head rocked and rocked.

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