Among New York’s Sidewalk Sideshows, 2 Goats and a Story of Despair

The short, slender woman clutches two leashes in her right hand. At their ends are two goats, Marshmallow and Brownie. The three of them stand in the human jet stream of Rockefeller Center, and people stop to take pictures or pet the animals.

How cute, they say. Only in New York, they say. A young man in a tuxedo, part of a raucous wedding party, stops, grins, and asks what brought her here.

And Beverly Shaw, 64, tells him the same story she will tell anyone: “I’m in a battle to get my husband out of a horrible situation,” she says, leaning in with urgency and pressing a flyer into his hand. The man politely recedes back into the crowd.

Had he let her finish, she would have told him that she wants to raise $5,000 to hire an attorney to help her liberate her husband of 43 years, David Shaw, 69, from a nursing home in Indiana. She believes he is being held against his will, overmedicated and at risk.

She knows this all sounds crazy. But she won’t be deterred. She has ignored or defied the advice of doctors and the sworn testimony of social workers entrusted with her husband’s care. Court records in Indiana show that his fate was decided at a hearing in September, but she can’t accept that. These people are all wrong, she tells countless strangers.

And so she left Indiana — and the complicated reality of her husband’s situation — a few weeks ago. She needed to spread her story — David’s story — to as many people as possible.

Where would she go, to tell how she had been separated from David? To tell about the medications that are turning him into a zombie and affecting his memory?

She loaded her almost 10-year-old sedan with essentials and, because they would starve on their own, the goats. She drove 15 hours, with expired plates, to the most crowded place she could imagine, a destination throughout its history for many other troubled travelers, the desperate and lonely with nowhere else to turn.

New York City.

This city’s streets have long been thick with oddities and novelties and hustlers, a nonstop series of one-acts and one-offs, Elmos and exotic animals too numerous to stop and watch. Into this sprawling sideshow slipped Mrs. Shaw, a curious addition with her wispy frame and her earnestness and her lack of anything approaching hustle.

Mrs. Shaw bought two goats, Marshmallow and Brownie, pictured, for her husband, and had them certified as emotional-support animals.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

The goats rode shotgun, their seat covered in plastic and hay. She arrived on Sept. 30, a Saturday, and parallel parked for the first time. A passing stranger helped guide her into a spot on West 49th Street, across from the neon signs for NBC Studios. She spent a week on and around that block, with Brownie and Marshmallow and a bag full of fliers about her husband.

At night, she and the goats slept in the car, still parked in that same spot. She was in the driver’s seat with a pillow propped against the window. The passing sirens woke her. She could not afford a hotel.

She changed the hay every morning and ate one meal a day, usually at McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A.

There are many pockets of the country that view New York City in grim terms — a friendless, overcrowded place, where no one stops and no one cares. But to stand in Rockefeller Center with Beverly Shaw and her goats is to observe the contrary.

“People have been hugging me and crying with me,” she said as she handed out fliers. “A lot of people said they would put it up in their office. Someone said they’d put it in the subway.”

At night, the police mostly pass her by in her illegally parked car with its expired plates in the heart of midtown. “They’ve been pretty nice,” she said. “I explain everything, that my husband’s trapped. They say, ‘Oh my God.’ One of them gave me $20.”

A life together

Mrs. Shaw said she and her husband, David, took a trip to Michigan about three weeks before he was hospitalized in Indiana in August.Credit…Beverly Shaw

Beverly and David met in school in Indiana in the 1970s, like one outcast finding another at a loud party. “I wasn’t into the drug scene,” she said, “and he was a farm boy.” They married soon after, when she was 20 and he was 25, and they lived all over — Huntington on Long Island; Salem, Ore.; Colorado — before settling on a little piece of land in Missouri, in the city of Marble Hill.

David had worked different jobs in different places, as a welder and a factory worker, but in recent years, they relied on their combined $1,400 in Social Security payments. They lived in a trailer, and they were poor, for sure, but they were happy.

Then last November, David collapsed to the ground — a stroke. It took an ambulance an hour to arrive over dirt roads. He would spend weeks in the hospital, and then a nursing home in Marble Hill.

Beverly finally brought him home in March, and said she was able to wean him from the heavy medications — the zombie ones. He continued to recover, was able to walk while pushing a wheelchair, and hold a conversation. He helped her in the garden out back. They had always kept animals, and Beverly bought him the two goats and had them certified as emotional-support animals.

The couple teased one another. They joked about renewing their vows and changing “honor and respect” to “harass and pester.”

They thought of moving one more time, somewhere closer to a hospital in case of another emergency. In July, they drove to Shelbyville, Ind., to check it out.

And in Shelbyville he remained, against his will, in her telling, and hers. He had been appointed a guardian who began making his decisions. The doctors didn’t listen, she insists, when she explained how he reacts to the medications that slow him down. And so Beverly watched her husband, who just days earlier had been walking and shopping at a farmers’ market, transformed into a slack-jawed, bed-wetting husk who asks her questions like “Where is my wife?”

Her fliers tell her story in before-and-after pictures, with an alert David sitting outdoors in July in one photograph, and in another, more recent, gazing off with a vacant stare.

If she could only get him home. Simple as that.

But the truth — the full truth — is far from simple.

‘There was concern’

Mrs. Shaw spent several nights sleeping in her car, reclining in the driver’s seat alongside the goats.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

On Sept. 1, a hearing in the matter of establishing a guardianship for David Shaw was held before a judge in Shelby County Circuit Court. While his medical records and much of his case file are sealed to protect his privacy, an audio recording of the hearing is available to the public at the courthouse.

The hearing lasted two hours and offered a starker view of Mr. Shaw’s condition and his wife’s ability to care for him.

A social worker at the hospital testified that Mr. Shaw arrived there on Aug. 6 for his dehydration issues, and that Mrs. Shaw left with him later despite a doctor’s advice.

The couple returned two days later, on Aug. 8 for another issue, and again, they left, only to return on Aug. 9, which led to new, uncomfortable questions.

“There was concern that patient was not receiving his appropriate medications,” the social worker testified. “And his medicines were being managed by Mrs. Shaw.”

Another social worker, from the nursing home, described Mr. Shaw as barely communicative and unable to care for himself. At best, he can make it known “if he wants to go to the dining room or if he’s hungry,” she testified. “I don’t think, cognitively, he would be able to make safe decisions continuously.”

Beverly Shaw was present at the hearing and represented herself.

“I took excellent care of him,” she told Judge Trent Meltzer, hearing the matter.

“I love him with all my heart,” she said. “We have been married 43 years. We still hold hands in bed. We have our arms around each other when we sleep. In 10 years, we haven’t been apart for five minutes.”

Despite Mrs. Shaw’s pleas, a court found considerable evidence that her husband required more care than she could provide at home.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

But in the end, Judge Meltzer found Mr. Shaw to be incapacitated, and approved of his being placed in the care of a guardian. “It pains me,” he told her, in closing.

Crestfallen, Beverly visited often, complaining to the staff and taking the “after” pictures she would later use on her fliers. And by the end of September, she was driving to New York without him.

Earlier this month, sitting on a bench in Central Park behind Tavern on the Green — she wanted to expand beyond Rockefeller Center — she called David and waited, on hold. He came to the phone a minute or two later.

“Yeah?” he asked, the word drawn out over a couple seconds. Sounding groggy.

“I’m still here in New York,” she told him. “Still fighting for you, hear?”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

She hung up. He sounded OK — not great, but he’s been worse.

When she feels down and overwhelmed, she thinks of David coming home. Of sitting one morning across from him and telling him all of it: the fliers, Rockefeller Center, the police, the cold nights and the sirens, the nice people and the hay in the car. The whole story.

Of course he’ll throw a fit. He’s always telling her to be careful, and he doesn’t even like her out at night after dark.

But then he’ll be so proud, so amazed at what she did. All alone.

Mrs. Shaw said she brought the goats to New York not to draw publicity, but because there was no one else to care for them back home.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

Amy Lynch contributed reporting from Shelbyville, Ind., and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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