It’s October on the Main Line. For most around here, the autumnal dip in the mercury is something to be cherished.
Prep football games, hayrides and cider and smart new sweaters, horse enthusiasts up in Devon with their chaps and quilted jackets going riding on a crisp fall day.
The American dream is alive for many here, but not for all.
Andras Szekely, among other things, is a photographer. He’s got plenty of samples of his work to show — boxes of photographs, piled high along the rear driver’s side of his 2007 Toyota Siena minivan, which doubles as his home. On a recent evening, the minivan was parked in the lot by the Starbucks on East Lancaster Avenue in Wayne — his front and backyard for the night.
The minivan’s interior is hyperorganized chaos. Though it’s a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, everything is in its right place, just as he said it would be before opening the doors.
“I have no reason to misrepresent myself,” Szekely, 69, said. “And besides, I’m too old to have the strength for that anyway.”
A sense of humor helps him survive. He’s also a health nut, which doesn’t hurt.
“The surgeons say that laughing is a very good exercise for your heart,” Szekely said. “It’s better actually than running on the treadmill.” Just to be sure, Szekely laughs and exercises frequently.
But this is burying the lead.
Another lifetime ago, Andras (pronounced Andre) Szekely, the son of Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivors and an Israel Defense Forces veteran, was married with two children, living in Monticello, New York. A self-taught handyman and green thumb, he ran a successful landscaping company and owned greenhouses. He had money for a nice truck. He had money to send his kids to private Jewish day school. The same guy who left communist Hungary, literally hungry, at 19, was living the American dream he now sees his neighbors (such as they are) enjoy.
For the past five years, Szekely has been a school bus driver for the Tredyffrin/Easttown and Great Valley school districts. He’s been homeless the whole time. He’s kept this fact pretty well hidden until recently, when he was profiled by savvymainline.com’s Caroline O’Halloran. He decided the time had come to start seeking whatever help might be out there.
If you ask him how he staves off depression, he’ll crack a joke and then tell you he does it with sheer force of positive will, and with art.
Szekely’s photography has attracted a number of admirers. Longwood Gardens bought his work for its permanent collection. His photo greeting cards are sold at Valley Forge Park’s Visitor’s Center and the Cabin Shop at Valley Forge’s Washington Memorial Chapel. Frolic Weymouth, the artist, Du Pont heir and former chair of the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum (among many other things), liked his work and, Szekely said, used to invite him to parties at his home.
Why not ask such an influential man for help? It would’ve meant revealing his circumstances, showing how far such an ostensibly capable man had fallen. Szekely could not abide that.
He may be homeless, but he subsists. His job as a bus driver is part time, and comes with no benefits, but provides for the barest of essentials: food and a membership at the West Chester YMCA, where he swims and lifts weights daily. He’s able to shower and use the facilities there. At the Krapf bus depot in Malvern, he’s able to hang out between bus-driving shifts. Usually, he’ll pull out his laptop and post his photography to Facebook and his online store (visiblestimuli.com).
The $1,600 he says he takes in monthly from driving keeps him alive but does not stretch far enough to afford him a place to sleep at night, at least not a place that would be acceptable. He’s averse to any sort of public assistance. He said that sort of thing is for people in really bad shape, not for him.
And to those in really bad shape, he gives, even when he can’t afford to. Julie Savitch, the incoming chair of Women’s Philanthropy for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, has gotten to know Szekely in recent weeks and is shocked, above all, by his generosity.
“He told me that he donated $2,000 worth of photos to the Upper Main Line YMCA for their fundraiser so he can contribute to sending underprivileged children to camp there,” she said. “He is both philanthropic and in need of philanthropy.”
Szekely may be in need of philanthropy, but he will not compromise his dignity, so he sleeps in the minivan. He’s also understandably short on the painful details that led him to this desperate point. While living in rural upstate New York, his wife, an Israeli whom he’d met years earlier while living in Borough Park, Brooklyn, moved back to Israel, taking their two children, then 7 and 3, with her.
Upon returning to the States with their children years later, Szekely’s estranged wife sued him for unpaid child support. Szekely fought his wife’s charges in family court and, according to savvymainline.com, Szekely still has the international money order receipts to prove that he made the payments at issue. Despite this, the family court in New York entered a judgment against him.
The family court judgment, he said, ruined him financially. His businesses, his house, his car — swallowed whole. Savvymainline.com unearthed court documents to verify Szekely’s account.
Szekely insists that he’s never been anything but completely truthful in his business dealings and in the way he handled his legal situation.
For a long time, Szekely was resigned to wait until the curse he seemed to be living under had finished with him. But he’s tired now, physically and existentially. He worries about his health breaking down. He worries about his car breaking down.
He has a daughter and grandchild in Southern California, whose lives he’d like to be part of, but it’s got to be on his terms, he said. His daughter has offered him assistance, but he won’t take it. “It’s supposed to be the other way around,” he said.
So what now?
Maybe an art gallery will see his story and give him a shot at an exhibit. That’d be OK, he said. But what he’s really hoping for with all his clever cynicism is that one of the major big-box stores that carries greeting cards will leap at the wave of positive PR that would come from being the exclusive carrier of a homeless artist’s work.
Target, are you listening?
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