Updated Monday, December 3, 2012 at 05:58 AM
NEW YORK — After Officer Lawrence DePrimo knelt beside a barefoot man on a bitterly cold November night in Times Square, giving him a pair of boots, a photo of his random act of good will quickly took on a life of its own — becoming a symbol for a million acts of kindness that go unnoticed every day and a reminder that even in this tough, often anonymous city, people can still look out for one another.
DePrimo was celebrated on front pages and morning talk shows, the Police Department came away with a burnished image and millions got a smile from a nice story.
But what of the shoeless man?
For days, his bare feet — blistered and battered — were well known. Yet precise details about him proved elusive.
His name is Jeffrey Hillman, and on Sunday night, he was once again wandering the streets — this time on the Upper West Side — with no shoes.
The $100 pair of boots that DePrimo had bought for him at a Sketchers store on Nov. 14 were nowhere to be seen.
"Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money," Hillman said in an interview on Broadway. "I could lose my life."
Hillman, 54, was by turns aggrieved, grateful and taken aback by all the attention that had come his way — even as he struggled to figure out what to do about it.
"I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?" he said. "This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie."
He did not recall the photo being taken but remembered well the gift from DePrimo.
"I appreciate what the officer did; don't get me wrong," he said. "I wish there were more people like him in the world."
Hillman said he came to New York about a decade ago and had been on the streets most of that time. He moves about Manhattan, he said, not frequenting any particular neighborhood. Hillman said he was from South Plainfield, N.J. He said he joined the Army in 1978 and served as a "food service specialist" in the United States and Germany. Before he became homeless he worked in kitchens in New Jersey.
He has two children — Nikita, 22, and Jeffrey, 24 — but has had little contact with them since a visit three years ago, Hillman said.
He was reluctant to talk about how he ended up on the streets, staring blankly ahead when asked how his life went off course.
After a long pause, he shook his head and said, "I don't know."
Since Hillman's bare feet became famous, other people reported seeing him without shoes — one even after DePrimo's gift — and one woman said she had bought him a pair of shoes a year ago.
Whatever the case, Hillman seemed accustomed to walking the pavement shoeless.
ROBERT CAPLIN / NYT
Jeffery Hillman, the homeless man whose gift of boots from a police officer was captured in a photo that went viral last week, said Sunday he has hidden them away.