Filed Under:

A N.Y. Cop's Good Intentions, Complicated Results

Play associated audio

When news organizations, including ours, told of New York Police Officer Lawrence DePrimo buying boots for a barefoot man on the streets of Times Square one cold night last month, it seemed an irresistible holiday story: A kindly cop in a hard city helps a bedraggled man walking with blistered feet over some of the richest streets in the world.

The nameless, shoeless man became the best-known street person in America — just long enough to be recognized walking along the Upper West Side, where a New York Times reporter found him.

The man's name is Jeffrey Hillman. He turns out to be a 54-year-old veteran who is once again barefoot, telling the Times, "Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money. I could lose my life."

He had kind words for Officer DePrimo, saying, "I wish there were more people like him in the world."

But like a lot of New Yorkers, Jeffrey Hillman also kvetched.

"I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?" he asked. "I want a piece of the pie."

In a week, Jeffrey Hillman went from being anonymous and overlooked to a public figure whose life was dissected as if he were running for office.

Just as we were writing stories to say life on the street is so fraught with risk that a homeless man cannot safely walk them in new shoes, the New York Daily News discovered that Mr. Hillman is not homeless. He has an apartment in the Bronx paid for by a federal program.

Even so, he has received Department of Homeless services since 2009, although Commissioner Seth Diamond told USA Today that "doesn't mean our work is done with him. He is not dressed for the weather, he is not engaged in a healthy lifestyle, and he is not leading a productive life." Mr. Diamond suggested mental health and substance abuse might be at work, too.

I don't like to think that because Jeffrey Hillman turns out to be less needy and more complicated than he appeared to be in a tourist's video, Officer DePrimo's kindness now looks useless — or foolish. He saw a cold, hurting man and helped him on the spot. He didn't tell him, "Don't worry, sir, I contribute to charities and support government programs that will help a lot of people who suffer from a social pathology similar to yours." He bought the man a pair of shoes.

Part of what makes an act of giving truly kind is that we recognize ourselves in those who need help, and know, but for a few zigs, zags and accidents, that could be us.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

WAMU 88.5

A Conversation With "Broad City" Co-Star Abbi Jacobson

What do Michelle Obama, Anna Wintour and Michael Jordan carry in their bags? Abbi Jacobson imagines the things you might find in her new illustrated book, "Carry This Book." We talk to the "Broad City" co-star about what you can learn from the contents of bags—and her success creating and starring in the hit Comedy Central show.

WAMU 88.5

New Approaches To Tackling Local Youth Hunger

The First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe and other regional leaders are exploring new, innovative ways to combat local food insecurity.

WAMU 88.5

What Washington Really Thinks of the Rest of America

Kojo explores the surprising findings of a Johns Hopkins survey on what D.C.'s federal workers and unelected policy makers really think of the American public.


Researchers Build 'Nightmare Machine'

An MIT project rolled out just in time for Halloween uses artificial intelligence to generate horror images.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.