The Hopeful He-Man of Madison Square Park

He said that about a decade ago, desperate for cash, he plundered a Newark cemetery and sold skulls to practitioners of Palo Mayombe. “That was crazy.”

Mr. Nelson dated a woman named Elise, a prostitute. He would carry empty bottles in his jacket pocket to defend her.

His time in New York has been a succession of relationships, mainly because he needed a place to live but also because he likes to find a girl and stick with her. First was Christine.

“She used to live with this 70-year-old man. And he paid $200 a month toward the apartment on MacDougal. So she’d rob him for a few hundred dollars, once a month. We’d go out and get high and all and come back. And this guy was senile. She’s like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna take all of his money and just get outta here, you know what I mean?’ I say, ‘Listen, don’t do that, just take a little bit and this way you always have the apartment.’”

The elderly tenant eventually dropped dead, Mr. Nelson said, but Christine wound up moving to Florida.


HE MET INA in detox on Staten Island. She was a stripper, married with kids, who’d let him crash in the basement of their place on 69th Street and Queens Boulevard. Eventually, the husband and kids moved out, and Mr. Nelson moved in. All she wanted to do was get high, watch TV and have sex. “It’s like the night of the living dead. You don’t do nothing, you’re sleeping all the time, you’re groggy, you’re a vegetable.”

He dropped Ina and got sober for real for the first time, in November ’06. By summer, he was benching 460 pounds. It was around this time that the folks behind were taken with him. Some of the cops around Tompkins Square Park told him about it, made a few cracks about superhuman powers. One day a woman came up to him on the street and asked him if he would do a striptease at her bachelorette party out in Queens.

“I said, ‘I really don’t know how to dance,’” he said. “They offer me $350. ‘Well, I can probably, ya know, do somethin’.’” He picked up a G-string on the way over. “So I get back to the house and women are just gawking at me. I wind up gettin’ blue balls so bad.”

Word spread. He was contacted about a few more parties, all up in Queens. “A girl that was at one goes to me, ‘Listen, this girl, her boyfriend beats her all the time, treats her like garbage; ya know, I’ll pay you $40 if you could do somethin’ with her.’ So we go in another room, and we start foolin’ around, and she says, ‘Oh, listen, I’m so sorry but I can’t, I gotta boyfriend and I really don’t know if I be able to fuck, ya know what I mean, because, uh, I think it’d be cheatin’. But she goes, ‘If you wanna just go down on me, I think it’d be all right.’”

How was that?

“You know, I kinda like goin’ down on women. I could do that all day.”

Mr. Nelson said that great sex requires patience and communication. Which is impossible in a coffee shop bathroom or under a blanket in the park.

“It takes both youse to have great sex,” he said. “Foreplay is the main thing with women; you gotta warm them up.”

There was a Jewish girl named Danielle—also a junkie who wound up in rehab in Florida.

He was back in Jersey when his settlement finally came through, and there he ran into Diane Rio. Mr. Nelson had dated her sister back in the day, before she OD’d on pills. Five months and $70,000 after he got his court settlement, his father took control. “He said, ‘I’m holdin’ the money. You wanna fight me, go ahead, you’re not getting it unless I die or you quit using drugs, whichever comes first.’ That was the best thing he ever did.”

Mr. Nelson chose life and New York City. Ms. Rio went clean, too. For a while, the couple were living under scaffolding on 26th Street. In August ’08, they got placed in a one-bedroom at a shelter in Jamaica, Queens; pretty soon, he said, they’re going to get their own Section 8 apartment. These days, Mr. Nelson wakes up around 7—usually because of a phone call from his father. Then he swings by the clinic. At around 1 he rides the train to Asser Levy. Lately, he’s been training people on the side for a few bucks. Sometimes, in Madison Square Park or elsewhere, a nice-looking woman will come up and ask to have a photo with him. He often carries a small gym bag. He read a blog post on that featured a picture of him carrying such a bag and speculated that he had ripped apart a school bus in order to rescue the bag, which he then delivered to a distraught schoolgirl.

“I don’t why, they make me into some kind of a hero,” he said. “It’s just a goof, I guess.”

The Hopeful He-Man of Madison Square Park