[Hpn] Homeless, But Not Hopeless; Newsday; News Column; 9/2/02
Morgan W. Brown
Tue, 03 Sep 2002 00:28:08 -0400
Monday, September 2, 2002
[Nassau, Suffolk & Queens counties, NY]
News Columnists section
In The Subways
Column: [by] Ray Sanchez
Homeless, But Not Hopeless
September 2, 2002
New York had been baking for days when homeless inventor Phil Simkins called
from a midtown pay phone with an idea to "revolutionize" travel in the
On a "queen-sized" park bench on Fifth Avenue, near the Guggenheim, he
dreams the grandest dreams in a city of dreamers.
Simkins, 52, was speaking enthusiastically about his "Kool Rope," a rubber
tube you take out of the freezer and wear as a "personal air conditioner" on
sweltering subway platforms.
The tube can be molded to your body, around the neck and under the arms to
keep you cool for up to one hour. It is hard not appreciating any attempt to
improve life in the Dantean subway, and it really works.
A self-made catalogue of Simkins' inventions includes a sketch of four
adults and a child wearing Walkman-sized, hand-powered Kool Ropes devices
around their waists as a No. 1 train pulls into a station.
It is an idea that Simkins has been refining for years. He said
firefighters, police officers, Con Ed workers, Parks Department employees
and even a trainer for the New York Yankees have praised the device after
using it. Still, nobody will commit to developing it.
"Thank you for sending your 'Kool Rope' device to the New York Yankees,"
said a 1997 letter from David Sussman, then the team's executive vice
president and general counsel. "Our trainer examined and tested your product
and determined that the Yankees have no use for this product."
He received a similar rejection notice from New York City Transit's Office
of System Safety in 1999. "NYC Transit has determined that the use of the
'Kool Rope' is not necessary from an employee safety perspective," it said.
What's most fascinating about Simkins is the heart and determination of this
eternal optimist, who has been living on the streets since March. Before
that, he spent nights sleeping on a chair at the Open Door shelter on 41st
Street and Ninth Avenue, and before that, he split his nights between YMCAs
in Brooklyn and Harlem.
He has lived this nomadic existence since his mother, Bernice Alston, 74,
died in his arms after a heart attack on New Year's Eve a dozen years ago.
He couldn't pay the rent on their 96th Street apartment.
Though Simkins said he graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology
in 1972 and made a little money after inventing a checkerboard game called
Panic Button, the drifter life appeals to him.
"I've been on a mission to get this stuff out," said Simkins, who is
6-foot-3, freckled and has a mane of unruly gray hair. "When I was living at
the YMCA in East New York, I had a nice bed with clean sheets. But there was
a certain amount of complacency. Should I go into the city today? Being in
the middle of Manhattan is like sleeping on pins and needles. You have to
get your butt up and work."
Simkins conducts his research in public libraries such as the Science,
Industry and Business Library at 34th and Madison, where he is well-known by
the staff. He's up at the crack of dawn, walking or riding the subway to
various library branches to sign on for Internet time.
"It's not like I sit on a park bench thinking all day," he said. "Every day
In addition to the Kool Rope, Simkins is constantly fine-tuning his
Teletron, a concave mirror device that makes photographs appear
three-dimensional. He has also invented plastic sleeves that he hopes will
someday enable the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to place ads on
subway turnstiles. (Simkins can be contacted about his work at
"This is my job," Simkins said. "This is what I was meant to do."
Simkins survives on a $30 weekly allowance from an aunt in Harlem. For
nourishment and washing up, he counts on the many church-run soup kitchens
and homeless outreach programs in midtown Manhattan.
"If you have no money," he said, "you will never die of hunger in this city.
The churches serve thousands of people every day."
Though Simkins realizes that perhaps his chances at success have been hurt
by his nomadic life, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Even among friends, there is that nagging little thing: You're not the same
as a regular person. You're not all there," he said. "Many people don't
realize how close they are to being in my position. For me, it's like
climbing Mount Everest. I'm more satisfied than if I had money and a place
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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