Ithaca, N.Y — Amid a small stand of pine trees near Purity Ice Cream and the Mirabito gas station on Route 13, Mark Dorazio made a makeshift campsite with a cardboard bed and slept there in February even as temperatures dipped below zero.
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To keep warm, Dorazio, 66, said he wore three layers of clothing and curled up in a tight ball under his only blanket. He put three cardboard boxes inside of each other (like Russian nesting dolls), laid them on their sides and crawled in as far as he could go. He said the layers of cardboard provide insulation against the cold. The rest of his body rested atop a cardboard mat.
“You can always get up and just walk around and you can always stay warm that way,” Dorazio said. “You might lose some sleep, but I wasn’t ever in any danger.”
The pine trees he stayed under offered some shelter from the elements, and effectively concealed him from the cars driving by on Route 13. Dorazio said snow is better to deal with than rain.
“Rain would have been more of a problem,” he said. “If it had been warmer and raining, I would have had to find some other place to stay. I was actually strategizing, looking for places … I picked out a few spots where I could have stayed if I had needed to.”
Dorazio, nicknamed “Creek-water” for his preference of drinking creek water over tap water, said he has been traveling around the country and living primarily outside since the early 80’s, with some stretches of time where he held small jobs and lived in apartments.
He said he had never been to Ithaca before his arrival in early February, and he was surprised at how cold it was.
“This is the coldest ever,” he said in an interview in early March. “The coldest I’ve ever spent sleeping outdoors has been the last month and a half.”
To earn money while he was in Ithaca, Dorazio said he knocked on people’s doors and offered to shovel snow for them, ending up with about a half a dozen regular customers. He said he isn’t ashamed of accepting donations, either.
Despite his openness to monetary donations, Dorazio said he doesn’t use homeless shelters because he doesn’t think they’re necessary and he has heard bad things about them.
“People steal stuff, and they have rules you have to abide by,” Dorazio said. “If you want to leave, you can’t leave; if you show up late they won’t let you in. I still depend on other people, but I don’t need to go to those places.”
He said he was aware of some of Ithaca’s shelters, like the Rescue Mission, but preferred to stay outside.
See related explainer: Homelessness in Ithaca during an especially difficult winter
Dorazio said he chose this lifestyle, and calls it living “home-free” instead of homeless. He says he was an “angry young man” while he was in college, and that his anger stemmed from the Vietnam War. He said he didn’t feel passionate about his college education, and he never entered a career and struggled to settle down.
Dorazio said becoming homeless was an improvement from his post-college life.
“I was driving a school bus for four years and living in the basement of my parents’ house,” Dorazio said. “I didn’t have a life at the time, I just had a little job that got me out of the house twice a day, otherwise I’d sit around and watch TV all day with nothing to do. So, by getting out of that situation it was an improvement in my life.”
The oldest of his parents’ six children, Dorazio said most of his family lives in Delaware. As kids, they moved around a lot because his father was in the Air Force. After leaving his parents’ house, he decided to go somewhere he had never been: California.
“At first the whole family, everybody thought I was crazy,” Dorazio said. “I’ve been doing this for so long; they know I’m okay now. I’m the healthiest of the lot.”
He said he keeps in touch with his family mostly by email and Facebook. Dorazio carries with him a couple of tote bags of personal items, and among them is a small laptop he said a friend gifted to him. He uses free WiFi in cafes and libraries to get connected, and he said before he had a laptop he used computers in public libraries.
Dorazio said he travels in a combination of long-distance walking and hitchhiking, and has walked across the country about a half a dozen times for various activist causes. The most recent cross-country march he participated in was the 2014 Great March for Climate Action. On Nov. 15, 1969, Dorazio said he participated in a massive Vietnam War protest at the Washington Monument. The protest included an estimated 250,000 people, according to a New York Times article from Nov. 16, 1969.
Dorazio decided to come to Ithaca this February after a brief stay in New Jersey. His passion for physics, which he discovered after college, was one of his motivations for traveling to Ithaca. He said he hoped to meet a physicist whose work he says he has read extensively: Dr. Ernest Sternglass, a Cornell graduate of 1952.
However, at 91 years old Sternglass died of heart failure on Feb. 12, about a week after Dorazio arrived in Ithaca. According to his obituary in The Ithaca Journal, some of Sternglass’s most notable accomplishments include inventing the camera that sent the first live pictures back from the moon and his work on x-ray technology.
Dorazio said although he was sad to have so narrowly missed the opportunity to meet Sternglass, he now feels a responsibility to inform others of the physicist’s work.
Much of his time in Ithaca was spent in the archives of Cornell’s Olin Library, Dorazio said, where he read through boxes of Sternglass’s work and letters to Sternglass from Albert Einstein, dated from the early 1950’s.
On March 15, Dorazio left Ithaca and moved on to New York City, where he said he aspires to publish some of his writing about the work of Sternglass and another physicist, Dr. Menahem Simhony.
Dorazio chose to write about Sternglass and Simhony, he says, in part to publicize “the work of two gentlemen who are almost unknown.”