Homeless man grateful for boots, but he's barefoot again

Homeless man grateful for boots, but he's barefoot again
After Officer Lawrence DePrimo knelt beside a barefoot man on a bitterly cold November night in Times Square, giving him a pair of boots, a photo of his random act of good will quickly took on a life of its own - becoming a symbol for a million acts of kindness that go unnoticed every day and a reminder that even in this tough, often anonymous city, people can still look out for one another.

DePrimo was celebrated on front pages and morning talk shows, the Police Department came away with a burnished image and millions got a smile from a nice story.

But what of the shoeless man?

For days, his bare feet - blistered and battered - were well known. Yet precise details about him proved elusive.

His name is Jeffrey Hillman, and on Sunday night, he was once again wondering the streets - this time on the Upper West Side - with no shoes.

The $100 pair of boots that DePrimo had bought for him at a Sketchers store on Nov. 14 were nowhere to be seen.

"Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money," Hillman said in an interview on Broadway. "I could lose my life."

Hillman, 54, was by turns aggrieved, grateful and taken aback by all the attention that had come his way - even as he struggled to figure out what to do about it.

"I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?" he said. "This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie."

He did not recall the photo being taken but remembered well the gift from DePrimo.

"I appreciate what the officer did, don't get me wrong," he said. "I wish there were more people like him in the world."

At another point he said: "I want to thank everyone that got onto this thing. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. It meant a lot to me. And to the officer, first and foremost."

Hillman said he came to New York about a decade ago and had been on the streets most of that time. He moves about Manhattan, he said, not frequenting any particular neighborhood. On Sunday, he was making his way from the Upper West Side to Times Square.

If it rained, he added, he might seek refuge on a train.

Hillman said he was from South Plainfield, N.J. He said he joined the Army in 1978 and served as a "food service specialist" in the United States and Germany.

He produced a worn veteran's identification card that confirmed his service.

Hillman said that he was honorably discharged after five years and that before he became homeless he worked in kitchens in New Jersey.

He has two children - Nikita, 22, and Jeffrey, 24 - but has had little contact with them since a visit three years ago, Hillman said.

He was reluctant to talk about how he ended up on the streets, staring blankly ahead when asked how his life went off course.

After a long pause, he shook his head and said, "I don't know."

Since Hillman's bare feet became famous, other people reported seeing him without shoes - one even after DePrimo's gift - and one woman said she had bought him a pair of shoes a year ago. Whatever the case, Hillman seemed accustomed to walking the pavement shoeless.

He was panhandling on Sunday night and carried a cup with a few coins inside.

The story seemed to dominate the city's attention late last week. Speaking of DePrimo on his radio program last week, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said, "That's what they're trained to do - help people."

Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly expressed his appreciation by giving DePrimo a pair of department cuff links during a private
meeting on Thursday.

DePrimo, 25, who lives with his parents in Suffolk County, rocketed to national attention after the Police Department posted the photo of him and Hillman, taken by an Arizona tourist, on its Facebook page.

On Sunday, Hillman was spotted by Jamie Seerman and her sister Samantha near 79th Street and Broadway as they were shopping for a Christmas tree.

As he was being interviewed, several people noticed him,

"What happened to the boots?" one man asked.

© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: December 03, 2012 11:37 IST

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