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December 25, 2006
Sandwich Was Joy to His World

by Owen Moritz
In this season of goodwill, no one has a better story to tell than Horace McDougan.

Homeless most of his 49 years, twice jailed, Horace described his life until now as "nothing."

No family, no job. No hope.

Then, in a miracle befitting Christmas, someone on the street handed him something right after the holiday - a sandwich, of all things - that led him to turn his life around.

Less than a year later, McDougan is now clean and sober and making $9 an hour working at a Meatpacking District restaurant.

It's a far cry from the days and nights he spent on the streets and in subway tunnels.

"I didn't look like I do now," McDougan said. "I was walking dead. I was about 125 pounds soaking wet with bricks in my pocket. My clothes were covered in grease."

He will tell his story of inspiration today as the main speaker at an annual gathering of the formerly homeless in Grand Central Terminal.

Known as Celebration of Hope, the event includes a candlelight vigil sponsored by the Doe Fund's Ready Willing & Able job-training and housing program. The vigil honors a woman known only as Mama who was found dead on Christmas Day 1985 inside Grand Central.

McDougan knows Grand Central well. He may even have known Mama in the years he washed there, and slept on benches and near the tracks.

A son of New York, born in Brooklyn and with a foster family in Harlem, McDougan abused cocaine and sold the stuff on the street.

When Grand Central closed for the night or Bryant Park was too cold for sleeping, he learned how to survive at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, even as fellow homeless were being swept up and out by cops.

"The trick was don't dress like a homeless person and they won't bother you," he recalled. "I learned how to look like a commuter who's sleeping away the night."

To see him preparing food at the Fig & Olive restaurant on W. 13th St. in his white uniform is to see a tall, earnest, softspoken man who appears at peace with himself.

"He's a good worker," said co-owner Lou Ramirez. "He's always on time" - something Ramirez said is critical to the restaurant business. "When a person comes in late, we don't need them."

McDougan's turning point came almost a year ago when, wandering the streets, he met a street-cleaner working for Ready, Willing & Able who took pity on him, gave him a sandwich and counseled the homeless man on finding a job.

"That was a lifesaver," McDougan said.

He entered the agency's program, leading to a food-preparation certificate after a year.

"It's like a new life," McDougan said of his first year as a new man.

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