The block of West 11th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues is lined with brownstones and London plane and Chinese scholar trees as tall as the brownstones they shade. Their leafy branches overlap, creating a cozy green roof over the block, as well as a considerable mess to clean up—one of the trees has a pair of birdhouses attached to its trunk.
Henry Codin has been sweeping the block for over a decade. To some he is known as the Mayor of 11th Street. The city is filled with these neighborhood characters, like the Godmother of East 10th Street, or the homeless twins of East 12th Street between Third and Fourth avenues—they are identical, but one is far grumpier. Henry Codin stands out from this crowd in that he does not live on the block and is universally beloved by its residents.
He arrives each morning, save Sundays, between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., depending on who you ask. Mr. Codin will tell you he gets there at 2 a.m. According to the guy at the coffee shop at the west end of the block, he’s there by 3 a.m.
“He’s here every day at 4 a.m.,” says Dr. Anthony Milea, who practices out of the bottom level of the brownstone adjacent to the Little Tony and Igor Be Good Barber Shop. “He’s the best. They don’t make them like him anymore.”
Mr. Codin usually wears work pants or jeans, a long-sleeve button-down, suspenders, a Florida Marlins cap and an expensive pair of wraparound Persol sunglasses. He always wears a silver Star of David on a black leather rope around his neck.
He’s still there when the sun comes up and people are leaving their homes to go to work or take their children to school.
Bright and early last Friday morning, Stella Schnabel, daughter of artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was leaving the family home, a certain movie star with a rakish grin trailing after her. “Oh, you mean Henry, the guy who sweeps the streets. He’s wonderful,” Ms. Schnabel said. “When I was young, he was always there when I’d be walking to school, he’d be there even when it was a really cold; he’d be there and say hello, and tell me I looked beautiful.”
Dick Corville, a spry, handsome 81-year-old, who has lived at number 125, a few doors down from Dr. Milea, for the past 25 years, gives Mr. Codin a check for $100 each month.
“You made my day,” Mr. Codin says each time he hands it to him.
“He’s does a very good job,” said Mr. Corville. “Very thorough…. He likes to talk to anybody that’ll talk to him. He always says, ‘Good morning, sir!’ So I say, ‘Good morning, sir,’ back.”
Mr. Corville noted that the people at number 127 haven’t signed on for Mr. Codin’s services, and it’s reflected in the trash that’s accumulated in front of their house.
“He give a good job for the people,” said Igor Khaimov, the barber. “For an old man, it’s not very easy. He come here and clean every time. He work more than me.”
Mr. Codin is also on good terms with the garbagemen and the guys who drive the street-cleaning trucks.
“Henry wears two hats—he cleans the street, but he also moves your car so that you don’t get a ticket,” said Ted Story, a theater director and landlord of number 144 since 1968. “When street cleaners see him, they won’t make him move the cars, because they know he’s already cleaned underneath them. You should see his key chain!”
“He’s there at 6 a.m. when I’m walking the dog, which is like the worst time of the day,” said Beth Krafchik, a 32-year-old yoga instructor who lives with her Yorkshire terrier. “And he’s so chipper at that hour. He’s like my morning coffee.”
“He chooses to always have this incredible positive attitude and just spreads it all over everybody,” said Ms. Schnabel’s older sister, Lola. She noted that there was a time when several homeless people used to gather around a heating vent on the side of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which made it sort of a scary block, but she always felt safer having Mr. Codin around.
For resident Chuck Bennett, that “amazingly sunny disposition” is the “highlight of my day.” Few residents of the block know much about Mr. Codin’s personal life. “I sometimes think he lives in his car,” Mr. Corville said. “His daughters sometimes come and help him.”
Carl Stein, an architect who has lived on the block since 1971, and employed Mr. Codin’s services for over a decade, could say only, “My impression is that Henry has had a very interesting life.”
“I could tell you stories, I could tell you stories that would make your head spin, brother,” Mr. Codin told me. He said he was too busy to talk. I walked with him along Seventh Avenue.
What about these daughters of yours, I asked him.
“Yep, I’ve got three of them. All college-educated. Roger Williams University up in New England. I’ll tell you, that school is expensive. Didn’t have a problem with a single one of them.”
“Henry, I was looking for you this morning,” said a woman in blue scrubs, sitting out front of St. Vincent’s. “I couldn’t find any spaces on the block.”
“Well, why didn’t you come find me? You know I take care of you,” he said. “I’m too old to be squinting. You got to call my name, say, ‘Hey, Henry!’”