October 13, 2011

USA: For 17 years, seven days a week, this 97 year-old has been begging on the street, but not for himself

NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / NY Region / October 11, 2011

A Familiar Figure Begs on the Street, but Not for Himself


He is a familiar sight, the old man who solicits change from drivers stopped at a red light on East 35th Street in Midtown Manhattan every day near Third Avenue.  Click for video

After all, he has been at it for 17 years now, seven days a week. With the help of a walker, he hobbles between lanes of traffic, approaching drivers, proffering newspapers — often a free paper collected from boxes on the sidewalk nearby — and asking for change.

“Help a guy out?” he repeated on a recent Wednesday afternoon to drivers who would often hand over a dollar or some change and then zoom off.

Most drivers simply regard him as another homeless down and outer, but every so often one might squint at the jolly man’s scruffy beard, scarecrow hair and zany smile and realize that — holy cow! — it’s the legendary comedian Professor Irwin Corey.

Mr. Corey is now 97.

A photograph of Mr. Corey, far left, with Fidel Castro hangs in Mr. Corey’s home.  Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Over his eight-decade career, he has been a staple on television and in comedy clubs, nightclubs and concert halls worldwide. His film career includes working with Jackie Gleason and Woody Allen. He appeared regularly on talk shows and sitcoms and was a skilled actor who began his stage career on Broadway in 1943.

Indeed, he still performs fairly regularly — a week ago he flew to Chicago to play two nights at a local club. Street panhandling is something of a side gig for Mr. Corey, who sets upon the cars emerging from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.

And disregard that homeless appearance. Mr. Corey lives in a cozy 1840 carriage house on East 36th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues that he estimates he could sell for $3.5 million. He returns there each afternoon and empties half a dozen pockets bulging with small change and dollar bills. On a recent day, he spread the money on his dining room table and counted it slowly: $106.19. He wrote down the amount on a carefully kept list of his daily takes and then added the money to desk drawers loaded with hundreds of rolls of coins and long rows of bundled dollar bills.

Mr. Corey said he gathers his daily take — usually about $100, though there have been $250 days — every few months and donates the money to a charity that buys medical supplies for children in Cuba.

As for the drivers he solicits, Mr. Corey said, “I don’t tell them where the money’s going, and I’m sure they don’t care.”

Mr. Corey has traveled to Cuba to donate personally, he said, pointing to the photographs on his wall of him with Fidel Castro. One is autographed by Castro, with the words “with admiration, gratitude and affection.”

There are also photographs of him on the David Letterman show, and with the likes of the comedian Dick Gregory and the actor Ossie Davis.

Irwin Corey, who is 97 and has had a long career as a comedian, panhandles along East 35th Street near Third Avenue. He uses the money he raises, usually about $100 per day, to support a medical charity in Cuba. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Mr. Corey has long billed himself as “The World’s Foremost Authority,” a reference to his trademark style of doubletalk and long, nonsensical observations that typically start with “However …”

He has cultivated his “Professor’’ charade since the 1940s, with his trademark black tails, a string tie, high-top sneakers and scarecrow hairdo.

Mr. Corey said he bought the home for $175,000 in 1974. The house next door recently sold for $5 million, he said.

While on stage Mr. Corey is known for his quick wit and exchanges with hecklers, he is mild mannered in the street, usually bidding drivers farewell with a “See you later, Alligator.”

Every morning, around 11, he shuffles slowly the two blocks to his spot.

Mr. Corey says he carries out this daily routine “because I want to help people.” He also said that living through the Great Depression left him with a hardened work ethic.

He was born in 1914 in Brooklyn and was placed by his struggling parents in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. He began doing comedy to cheer the other children. In his early teens, he rode in boxcars to Los Angeles and enrolled in the prestigious Belmont High School.

Mr. Corey is vague on his financial situation, but his agent of more than 50 years, Irvin Arthur, 85, said he had plenty of money without having to scrounge change in the street.

“This is not about money,” Mr. Arthur said. “For Irwin, this is an extension of his performing.”

Mr. Corey became known for his left-wing advocacy and an outspokenness that he says hobbled his career as an entertainer, getting him blacklisted from television networks.

While selling papers, Mr. Corey wears a white baseball hat on which he has written various slogans, including “Uncle Sam Is a Big Bully” and “Bribery Rules Washington” and “Let’s Replace Our Corrupt Government.”

Mr. Corey’s wife of 70 years, Fran, died in May at age 95, and Mr. Corey says that selling newspapers helped him take his mind off the loneliness.

Many of the old timers in the neighborhood know exactly who he is. At one point on Wednesday, a local resident named Roxie Cherishian, 81, walked over to say hello to Mr. Corey.

“Look at him — he’s still performing out there,” she said, as Mr. Corey charmed a driver. “When drivers wave him off, I want to tell them, ‘Do you have any idea what a legend this man is?’ ”

David Woolley, 85, a retired sales executive, spends afternoons at a nearby bar and watches Mr. Corey through the windows.

“It may seem crazy to us,” he said, “but if it makes him happy, let him do it.”

Mr. Corey says he could get $3.5 million for his apartment on an upscale block in Manhattan.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

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