There but for the grace of God...

Midtown Journal: Homeless Repairman Mixes High Tech With Low Overhead

December 7, 2003 By ALAN FEUER N.Y. Times

Perry Vona works five days a week on a busy stretch of 43rd Street between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas, which is not to say that he keeps an office there. Mr. Vona, who is homeless, works on 43rd Street - literally - repairing laptops, hard drives, keyboards, scanners, monitors and whatever other detritus of the digital age he can scavenge from the trash.

He is a common sight amid the pedestrians in Midtown, who might encounter him at 8 a.m. on a weekday sitting in a swivel chair, hunched over a stubborn piece of computer hardware plugged into the base of a public light pole. Working curbside with a fully stocked toolbox, he claims to sell his products to wholesale buyers and bargain hunters for as little as $60 to $80 apiece.

"I get them running, then I get them out the door," said Mr. Vona, whose open-air repair shop has no door. "I don't care what shape they come in, I can fix them."

"I do the upgrades, everything," he continued. "When I get done with a computer, it'll work."

Mr. Vona - a big, tall, hairy, bearish man somewhere in early middle age - has been earning his keep in just this fashion for at least eight years. He makes his living at the very intersection of high technology and consumer culture; his survival depends on the built-in obsolescence of computer goods.

The facts of his story are somewhat jumbled, none the least because he is mentally retarded and admits to suffering from a delusional mental illness. Mr. Vona clearly bears the scars, in psyche and in body, from years of living on the streets.

By his own account, he has led a tragic life. His parents died when he was 4 months old, and he was raised by a succession of foster parents, some of whom he says abused him. He was an ironworker until 1996, when he was injured on the job: a construction crane fell on top of him, he says, and put him in a coma. When he awakened, he says, he was imbued with an expertise in computer repair.

"Just like that," he said. "A gift from God."

This fantastic story is at odds with an account he gave The New York Times in 1995 when, using the name Carlos Sam, he claimed to have learned his trade at an uncle's television repair shop.

Nevertheless, one of his customers, reached at his request, confirmed his basic tale.

"I do know Perry," said Anthony J. Barber, a computer consultant. "I buy stuff from him every now and then. Some of it's good, some of it's junk."

Mr. Barber said that after making purchases from Mr. Vona, he would turn around and sell the items on his own. "We both turn trash into cash," Mr. Barber said.

Mr. Vona has been busy in the last eight years keeping up with the latest advances in technology, he says. He claims to be fluent in HTML and Javascript, and says he knows his way around televisions, cellphones, cuckoo clocks, refrigerators, washers, dryers and sewing machines.

He has two basic methods of acquiring equipment, he says: he roots through the garbage and he keeps a list of contacts in the city Sanitation Department and among the janitorial staffs of Midtown offices, who pass him castoff computer goods.

Mr. Vona has looked for more established work, but he says employers are usually unwilling to overlook his homelessness. A man with skills but without a roof, he says, gets nowhere.

"People look at you as homeless before they look at your qualities," he said. "And if they don't like what they're looking at, they don't look at you at all."

Recently, his business has suffered. He says that on the day before Thanksgiving, the police threw out a portion of his inventory, which he stores in canvas mail carts on the street. He lost three hard drives, some monitors and a couple of keyboards, he says.

"Yeah, some Thanksgiving present," he said.

Officers in the Midtown South Precinct refused to comment on Mr. Vona's accusations, aside from saying that he has never been arrested. They added that he was a constant, and relatively harmless, presence in the neighborhood.

But he seems to be hurting.

The photograph that accompanied the article in The Times eight years ago showed Mr. Vona hard at work, with the products of his business spread around him.

On Friday morning, he had only a single cart, and it contained a scanty tangle of broken goods.

He was eating breakfast on a blanket underneath some scaffolding. The street was quiet, the day was cold. He said he was depressed.

"All I want is a room," he said. "I got bad legs, bad circulation and two heart attacks in the last few years. I just want a place with privacy where I don't have to worry about people stealing all my stuff. All I want is a place of my own."

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