Tony Horton spent decades living on 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue.
But the big difference between him and his Upper East Side neighbors is that Horton, an actor and an artist, lived underground.
The homeless New Yorker died in a fire on Sunday at the F train stop at that intersection where he had lived for many years. It was news earlier this week when we happened to be writing about a Monday night performance of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, where Horton was an actor.
Runnin’ Scared spoke yesterday afternoon with Katy Rubin, founding artistic director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, to hear about the troupe’s response to the loss of one of its members and to learn a bit more about the life of Horton — a homeless man in his 40s who hated shelters, loved giving gifts, and frequently played the role of police officer in the troupe’s performances.
“His life was full of mystery,” Rubin said when we first asked her how old he was. He frequently told the troupe he didn’t know his age (In its profile of him earlier this week, The New York Times said he was 43, though he once told Rubin that he was older than 50).
His full name is Anthony Horton, but everyone always called him Tony, Rubin said. He was a part of the founding meetings back in June of 2010 of Theatre of the Oppressed, which partners with groups throughout the city to create productions with communities and institutions that are facing some kind of oppression. The organization has done a lot of work with homeless New Yorkers, and Horton played a big role, on and off stage, in the troupe that started through a collaboration with Jan Hus Presbyterian Church, she said.
Outside of his work with the troupe, he also created a graphic novel called “Pitch Black,” with writer Youme Landowne who met him on the street in New York City. The novel tells the story of his life and his experiences being homeless (Since news spread this week about his death, it has been sold out at Barnes & Noble, Rubin said).
He also taught himself to play piano and loved to sing, she said. “Tony was a really gentle guy and a loving guy.” He loved giving gifts — little trinkets he found on the street that he thought the troupe might like, or sometimes finding something as practical as an extension cord if folks said they needed one.
“On the Upper East Side, the things that people throw away are really nice. He would come to rehearsal with a tray of organic yogurts that had fallen off the back of a truck,” she said, laughing.
For the troupe, it has been a bit difficult to process. They met on Wednesday and discussed memorial plans and remembered their times with Horton.
“The truth is that people are having trouble knowing how to handle this in relation to their own lives,” she said, adding that some in the group called him the “soul of the troupe.”
“It was really surprising. On the one hand, it makes us think that people shouldn’t have to live underground. On the other hand, Tony was proud to live underground,” Rubin said.
He was skilled at it too, but it was tough, she said. She remembers numerous times when Horton, who struggled with alcoholism, wouldn’t show up to rehearsal because he got arrested or got trapped underground because of a new construction project.
“We were shocked because he was the master of survival,” she said. “He was amazing at it. And his stories were amazing.”
Within the troupe, he often played policemen or guards — which could be particularly funny and effective, Rubin said, because he had experience with law enforcement.
The group is planning a memorial on Feb. 29. Rubin said to check out Theatre of the Oppressed’s website where she’ll post the details of the memorial once it’s finalized. They are also raising funds to cover the cost of the memorial, and folks that wish to donate can do so on the site.
We thought we’d end with a quick poem that Horton wrote for a book the troupe is working on together (It’s being published in Concrete Justice: Street Poetry, which will be available in May).
try to understand
just the other day there was a rodent resting on my sleeping bag.
for some reason, i could not be made to shun the rat. i never understood it could be a friend.
over time i found that rodent would always be there. because there’s no other place to be.
if only you could see where i met this friend, you would understand.