Sunday, September 14, 2014

144. Smells of New York



      If you ask New Yorkers what their city smells like, their immediate and vigorous answer will include such items as these:

·      Garbage
·      Dog poop
·      Urine
·      Sweat (from other people, as in the subway)
·      Chemical vapors
·      Gas
·      Mold
·      Grilled meat from block parties
·      Diesel fumes
·      Smells from halal and hot dog vendors

File:AT STATEN ISLAND LANDFILL. GARBAGE BROUGHT BY BARGE FROM MANHATTAN IS DUMPED AT OUTER EDGES OF LANDFILL AREA - NARA - 549797.jpg
The Staten Island Landfill, where garbage from Manhattan used to be brought by barge, to be dumped at the outer edge of the landfill.  The landfill has since been closed, but imagine the aroma wafted by breeze to the nostrils of Staten Islanders.  No wonder they wanted to secede!

Summer, of course, is the worst season for unpleasant smells, since the heat “cooks” the garbage and other undesirable deposits.

File:Great Danes and Chihuahuas by David Shankbone.jpg
Man's best friend, but ...
David Shankbone

     To these I’ll add another provided by a friend who lived for many years in Brooklyn: the sickly sweet smell of mice dying in the walls after the landlord has spread poison, a smell that lasts from ten days to two weeks until their little bodies desiccate.  For my friend this is quintessential olfactory New York.

     And if you press New Yorkers for some positive olfactory experiences, they’ll think a minute and perhaps come up with

·      Toasted bagels
·      Fruit tree blossoms in spring
·      The aroma from a pizzeria, with hints of yeasty bread, cheese, and sausage
·      In Brooklyn, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee emanating from several little wholesale coffee companies hidden in brick buildings
·      Italian sausage cooking at stands at the annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy

File:06SanGennaroFestival.jpg
Sausage stand at the Feast of San Gennaro.
Nightscream
     Obviously, the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones.  And New Yorkers complain: 13,054 odor complaints to 311 (the city’s complaint and information number) over the last four years, or about eight gripes per thousand residents.  And to judge by the number of complaints, Manhattan is the smelliest borough by far.  Unless, of course, it simply has the most residents willing to lodge a complaint, which may well be the case.

     To the smells already mentioned, I’ll provide a few more, both pleasant and unpleasant, from my own experience.

·      The aroma of fresh baked bread emanating from some invisible bakery nearby, especially delicious on a cold winter night
·      On the street, the acrid smell of fresh asphalt when a pothole has just been filled
·      Roasted chestnuts from sidewalk stands in the fall
·      Hot air from dry cleaners, sometimes with a chemical edge to it that is probably toxic
·      A smell of rubble, plaster, and splintered wood heaped in dumpsters outside residences or shops undergoing renovation, their interiors, when glimpsed from the sidewalk, totally gutted and devastated
·      Exhaust fumes from buses as they pull away from the curb
·      In parks, the cloyingly sweet summer fragrance of Canada thistle and milkweed flowers, the soothing scent of a wild mint and, in the fall, a rich cidery tang from rotting apples scattered on the ground under apple trees
·      When pavement is being replaced, a smell of wet cement

File:CanadaThistleSK.jpg
Canada thistle, a fragrance that intoxicates.
SriMesh
File:Vandalism or history in the making - geograph.org.uk - 885583.jpg
Wet cement plus graffiti.  The photographer wonders: vandalism
or history in the making?  Will it one day be another Pompeii?

Basher Eyre

     Yet many smells escape me, for my sniffer isn’t the most efficient.  So let’s consult an expert.  A neuroscientist in town last spring to register the smells of a New York morning stood outside Grand Central Station during the morning rush hour and reported the following:

·      A toasted onion bagel
·      The “briny, salty, fishy” smell of the East River, delivered by the breeze
·      A “really powdery, moist, kind of sweet smell” from steam rising from underground

And inside the terminal, where shops abound:

·      High-end coffee (instead of the cheap coffee of the 1980s)
·      After-shave
·      Toothpaste
·      Disinfectant from trains
·      Brown-black shoe polish
·      Cheap air freshener from a Town Car coming from a man’s suit

And outside again, going toward Bryant Park:

·      Hot dogs
·      Doughnuts
·      The “sour, tangy, birdy smell of pigeons”
·      Cigar smoke

File:Man with many pigeons in Washington Square Park, New York.jpg
They're hard to get away from, but you don't have to feed them.
JoeinQueens
     There speaks a true expert, a scientist of smell.  And recently, on a so-called Smellwalk in Brooklyn, participants who sniffed trash cans and doorways and even trees reported such smells as these:

·      Garlic
·      Acqua di Gio cologne from a European tourist
·      Recently chewed gum in a trash can
·      Cigarette smoke
·      A marijuana joint
·      Blended wheatgrass

But when the tour organizer, who has led walks to create Smellmaps of various European cities, was asked for the characteristic smell of New York, she reflected a moment, then announced, “A warm, musty smell that comes from the cellar.”  Not, I confess, a smell that I have experienced. 

     Every so often an unusual smell – unusual for the city – arrives to spice our urban living.  In April of this year New Yorkers awoke to a heady smell of windborne smoke whose source was easily located: a brush fire in New Jersey a good hundred miles away.  And periodically, from 2005 to 2009, a mysterious maple-syrup-like aroma visited our nostrils, its source an enigma.  Finally, in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg announced triumphantly that the probable source had been detected: fragrance-processing plants in New Jersey making use of fenugreek seed, a spice employed in this country more for industrial than culinary purposes.  Not an unpleasant odor, but many New Yorkers were of the opinion that New Jersey should keep its smells to itself.  (I shan’t chronicle the smells of northeastern New Jersey, which combines extensive marshland, a pig farm, and an oil refinery.)

     The city of New York, then, teems with smells, some offensive and some not, though New Yorkers tend to emphasize the stinks.  For perspective, let’s have a look at nineteenth-century New York and see how it compares.

     By all accounts, nineteenth-century New York stank.  Sidewalks were often piled high with kitchen slops, cinders, coal dust, broken cobblestones, and dumped merchandise, while the streets were rich in horse manure that, in rain, became a thick, ankle-deep slime that smelled like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.  And when dry weather prevailed, the thick traffic on streets like Broadway ground the manure into dust that blew up from the pavement as a piercing powder that covered the clothes of passersby, invaded their nostrils, stung their eyes, and even blew into their residences to assail the furniture and upholstery.  And in any weather there might be a dead horse in the street.  Only the arrival of the horseless carriage relieved the city of these pestilential smells. 

     And that wasn’t all.  The middle class lived in handsome, well-scrubbed  brownstones on Fifth and Madison Avenues and their side streets, well removed from the seedy West Side of the 30s and 40s, which housed the gas facilities that provided them with gaslight, and such urban amenities as stables, distilleries, hog pens, slaughterhouses, tanneries, swill milk dairies, breweries, and a varnish factory, all of which emitted their distinctive aromas.  But if the wind was from the west, this symphony of smells could find its way eastward to the fashionable shops and restaurants and hotels on Broadway and to the brownstone neighborhoods as well. 

     So how did people cope?  By holding handkerchiefs to their nose.  Ladies, if they had to face these affronts to gentility, sprinkled flower scents on their handkerchiefs, behind their ears, and on perfumed sachets that they carried with them.  But the best solution was to retreat into the sanctity of the home and guard it with vigilance, and so arose the cult of the parlor.

     The parlor was the shrine and sanctuary of the affluent middle class, its refuge from the nasty smells – and nasty sounds and sights – of the turbulent city outside.  It was a feast of velvet and brocade, a stage for the gleaming white keys of a pianoforte, an assemblage of bibelots on whatnots, its shaded sanctum scented with cedar and lavender and rose.  Here one received callers of note, prominent among them the minister of one’s church.  In such an atmosphere one could forget for a while the reek of manure-laden streets, a whiff of hog pens and distilleries, and clouds of eye-stinging dust.  (More on the parlor in a future post.)

File:Victorian Parlor.jpg

     Another feature of nineteenth-century New York was a section of the city where no lady ever set foot, except to take a ferry or steamship: the waterfront.  But that waterfront offered a unique assortment of smells, as its docks welcomed ships from every major port in the world.  A stroll there brought to one’s nostrils an amazing sequence of aromas: fresh pineapple from a stand; sawn wood from a steam engine cutting up firewood; gas smells from a riverfront gas works; garbage smells from a mountain of refuse fed continually by a line of carts, while ragpickers crawled over the trash to scavenge bits of food, or shoes or scraps of metal to sell to the junk man; smelly hides being unloaded from a ship; hogsheads of tobacco ready to be shipped abroad; hints of tea, palm oil, and strange spicy aromas from crates and barrels being unloaded on docks serving the China, Australian, and African trade; a fine mist of flour as a grain elevator delivered flour from a spout to be weighed, bagged, and carted off; a smell of coal as workmen grimy with coal dust and sweat unloaded coal from a canal boat; and a smell of brine from an oyster market, and fish smells from a fish market.  Such a roster of smells reveals the tremendous activity of the waterfront in those days, and what the city has lost commercially since, albeit with an improvement in relative tranquility and waterfront recreation.

Ragpickers scavenging in a mountain of trash, 1866.

     Let’s return now to the smells of today and end by mentioning two less than enticing aromas imposed on us by those longtime friends of mine, the trees.  An import from China, the gingko (Gingko biloba) is a common shade tree here with distinctive fan-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall.  At the same time it bears its fruit, tawny or yellowish little balls that litter the ground, the smell of whose fleshy pulp has been likened to dog poop, an odiferous cheese, rancid butter, or vomit.  If one endures the smell and if, wearing disposable gloves to prevent irritation to the hands, one removes the pulp, inside is a greenish nut that some consider tasty.  Having endured the stink, cracked the shell, and fought through to the nut, I once tried it but found it uninteresting, not worth the ordeal required to harvest it.  Furthermore, if consumed in quantity, it can be toxic.  In the city the fallen nuts get crushed by pedestrians on the sidewalk, and people wonder where that offensive smell comes from.  Yet up in the North End of Central Park I have seen Chinese ladies gathering the fruit on the ground, whether for culinary or medicinal purposes, I do not know, since Chinese tradition sanctions both.  My conclusion: leave the gingko fruit to the Chinese ladies, who probably know what to do with it; only the hardy should mess with it.

File:Ginkgo biloba (Schönbrunn) natural monument 20081122 101 Fruit.jpg
Fruit of the gingko.
Wolfgang H. Wögerer
     And if, strolling the city’s streets in spring, you should detect an odor that some have described as a mix of (ahem!) semen and rotting fish, though others just say semen, don’t assume some oversexed teenager has been active in the vicinity.  Instead, look around and see if you don’t find one or several trees bearing quantities of little five-petaled white flowers that, if  sniffed, prove to be the source of this wanton odor.  Such is the callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), another import from Asia and the second commonest shade tree in the city, which puzzled me for years until I finally consulted the city and they identified it.  I knew it only as a mystery tree with white flowers in the spring; I had never stuck my schnozzola into its blossoms to discover this surprising -- and for some, offensive – odor. 

File:Pyrus calleryana flowers s2.JPG
Charming to look at ... until you sniff.
Alpsdake
    Finally, to end on a more positive note, I’ll mention McNulty’s at 109 Christopher Street (yes, that street) in the West Village, which boasts of being the country’s leading purveyor of choice coffees and rare teas.  Entering, you encounter the aura of a bygone era with sacks of coffee and chests of tea with obscure markings from faraway lands all around you, and even scales reminiscent of the nineteenth century.  Above all, one’s sniffer is intoxicated by the mix of aromas: oolong and herbal and black and green teas from India and Kenya and Sri Lanka and China, and coffees from Indonesia and Hawaii and Jamaica and Costa Rica and Columbia and Uganda and Ethiopia and Yemen and – but why go on?  A rare symphony of aromas, unique, unforgettable.

File:Mcnultys1895.jpg
Alphachef


     My Gauge of Estimation:  Just devised, it’s self-explanatory.  Very subjective; feel free to challenge or supplement it.

The Gauge of Estimation

My rating of the living creatures known to me; a purely personal judgment, riddled with prejudices, flexible, subject to change.

I admire (from most to much)

1.    Activist American nuns (they’ve even gone to jail for their convictions)
2.    Nurses
3.    Dalai Lama
4.    Honeybees (industrious, well organized, essential as pollinators)
5.    Doctors Without Borders (they have guts)
6.    Teachers (minus a few bad apples; overscrutinized, underpaid)
7.    Greenpeace (they have guts too)
8.    Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
9.    Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
10. Jimmy Carter (a better career post-White House)
11. Immigrants (we need them; they work hard)
12. Organic farmers (ditto)
13. Spiders (they have a bad press, eat flies and mosquitoes; I never kill them)
14. Investigative journalists (fewer now, when we need more of them)
15. Salvation Army
16. Painted buntings (our most beautiful songbird, but I’ve never seen    one)
17. Michelle Obama (I’d vote for her)
18. Snakes (U.S.; beautiful, harmless unless provoked)
19. Labor unions (to counterbalance corporations)
20. Bald eagles, falcons, hawks (fiercely beautiful)
21. NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) (they fight a lonely fight, plead only for consensual relationships)
22. Apple (in spite of its faults; endlessly inventive, and I love my Mac)

Pending  (I haven’t decided, may need more info; from hopeful to less hopeful)                    

1.    Pope Francis
2.    Mayor de Blasio
3.    Chelsea (on her own at last; we’ll see)
4.    Poets (poor things, so sensitive and so alone)
5.    FBI (at least, not as bad as the CIA)
6.    New York’s Finest (we need them, but …)
7.    Bill (brilliant but at times stupid -- Monica, etc.)
8.    Hillary (wants so much to be President)

I dislike (from much to most)

1.    Sarah Palin  (but keep her around for laughs)
2.    Blue jays  (the bullies of the bird world)
3.    Worms (they serve a purpose in the biosphere, but…)
4.    Putin
5.    Mosquitoes (they love my blood)
6.    Governor Andrew Cuomo (eliminated his own Commission to Investigate Corruption; in my eyes, a hack politician)
7.    Cockroaches
8.    Justice Clarence Thomas (came up the hard way, but I believe Anita Hill)
9.    Fundamentalists (they commit the sin of simplicity)
10.  Bankers (the big guys, not the small fry; manipulative, irresponsible)
11.  CIA (because…)
12.  Terrorists (of all stripes; takes in more people than you may think)
13.  Koch Brothers (one is bad enough, but two…!)
14.  The tobacco industry (at least their lies are known)
15.  The Tea Party crowd (partisanship first, the nation last)
16.  NRA (National Rifle Association) (even nine-year-olds should shoot)
17.  ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) (secretive, far-reaching; too often they write the laws our states adopt)

I hold in the utmost contempt (from much to most)

1.    Bedbugs
2.    Telemarketers (recorded messages, incessant, stupid)
3.    Dick Cheney (his finger in every dirty pie)
4.    Bullies
5.    Monsanto (the company I love to hate; GMOs, etc., and their ex-execs infest our government!)
6.    Vermin
7.    Congress (except for a few good souls, two of them noted above)
8.    New York State Legislature (the lowest you can get)


     Coming soon:  Brownstone and brownstones (the material, the residence, the Victorian parlor).  Then: Ralph Fasanella and his take on Joe McCarthy, the Rosenbergs, the Cold War, Vietnam, a Crucified Iceman, and so much more. 

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

    








       

Sunday, September 7, 2014

143. Panhandlers and Hustlers of New York



     Recently the New York Post announced with a blatant headline Cops bust Iron-Man, Spider-Man and Elmo in Times Square.  So who are these creatures, what are they doing in Times Square, and why are they being arrested?  Elmo, as seen in

File:Defense.gov photo essay 110414-D-9994-355.jpg
Elmo, on the left, waits to get a hug from
Dr. Jill Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Times Square, is a shaggy red monster with black dots of eyes and an orange nose, inspired by a Muppet in the children’s TV show Sesame Street.  Iron Man is an armor-clad figure, his face completely encased in a helmet, inspired by a comic-book superhero of that name who fights crime.  The third arrestee, Spider Man, stands tall in a torso-hugging red and blue garb adorned with what looks like a spider web, his head completely masked, a sinister figure likewise based on a popular comic-book superhero.

     So what is this trio of performers – for such they are – doing in the Crossroads of the World?  Charming children, posing with them for photos, and urging – or sometimes pressuring – their parents to fork over tips.  Tourists flock to Times Square, and so do these fee-for-service entrepreneurs, hoping to scratch out a living by playing to the hordes of out-of-towners. 

Iron Man
greyloch

     And why are these impersonators of characters beloved of children being arrested for disorderly conduct?  Because some of the Elmos, Iron Men, and Spider Men – and Mickey and Minnie Mouses (or should I say “Mice”?), Cookie Monsters, Spongebob Squarepantses, Batmen, Supermen, and Statues of Liberty – turn aggressive and even abusive if the tourists don’t pay; one Elmo even emitted obscenities and anti-Semitic tirades before being hustled away, to the relief of other, more genteel Elmos.  Exasperated by these developments, New York’s Finest have started passing out fliers advising tourists that the tips are strictly optional, and are now following up  by arresting the comic-book and Muppet copycats for blocking or harassing pedestrians. 


Spider Man
greyloch
     And who inhabit these sweaty costumes?  Mostly recent Hispanic immigrants, males 40 and under, who in this novel way are trying to make ends meet.  Which raises a First Amendment issue, and has prompted some of the impersonators and their allies to start organizing and taking photos and videos of the cops in action.  New Yorkers haven’t heard the last of this; editorials, arguments pro and con, and proposed legislation are sure to follow.

     The shaggy red Elmos and other characters insist that they aren’t panhandlers, and perhaps they aren’t, since they offer a kind of service – photograph me with your smiling kids and you’ll treasure the photo for years to come – rather than just begging for money.  A similar defense is offered by the squeegee men, young blacks armed with sudsy buckets and squeegees who, unasked, wash the windshields of cars stopped for a red light in midtown or waiting to enter a tunnel and then request, or at least hope for, a tip, which the drivers, somewhat intimidated, usually provide.  In their own defense, the squeegee men say they are simply trying to make ends meet and prefer this to selling drugs.   They were numerous in the early 1990s, when the city’s unemployment rate was high, until Mayor Giuliani, a strong law-and-order advocate, cracked down on them, and they became numerous again by 2011, when the city’s poverty rate was the highest in 27 years.  They are still active now, and one who says he nets about $60 a day explains: “I need to pay rent, and this is the best way to do it.”  The New York Post calls them terrorists, but not everyone --  myself included -- agrees.

A squeegee man at work, servicing cars waiting to enter the
Holland Tunnel.

     In this city there is a long tradition of panhandlers asking for money, and others who avoid panhandling by offering or imposing a service in hopes of the same.  In the 1830s doddering Revolutionary War veterans advertised their long-distant service in hopes of a handout from patriotic passers-by, although, when challenged, some of them proved amazingly fit by leaping to their feet and taking off.  And in the mid-1860s Broadway was clogged with Civil War veterans in faded blue uniforms, some of them one-legged, who sold pencils and other small items in hopes of a modest remuneration.  Continuing the tradition in New York and other big cities in the Depression-era 1930s were the World War I veterans selling apples on the street for a nickel.

     For a firsthand impression of mid-nineteenth-century New York and its beggars, we have What I Saw in New York, or a Bird’s Eye View of City Life, by Joel H. Ross, a visitor from upstate New york, published in 1851.  He records as the first object he saw to annoy him a colored female beggar, the only black woman he saw begging.  (In point of fact, black people in New York City in those days almost never begged.)  He saw her sitting at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street day after day, through wind and hail, snow and rain, never speaking, her hand open on her lap to receive alms, with an tattered brown cloak drawn round her so she looked like an old hen brooding chickens.  Why, in a city with so much else to see, he became fixed on this woman is hard to say, but fixed he was.  The more he saw her, he says, the more he became convinced she wasn’t worthy of alms.  The more he observed her, the more he disliked her face and the more he was annoyed.  Accustomed to seeing everyone earn their own bread and butter, he became impatient with her silent exhibition, which he viewed as an imposition, a disgrace to herself and the city, all the more so since she struck him as being strong and healthy.  In time he made the acquaintance of an honest and intelligent black man who, when questioned about her, urged him not to give her anything, since she was as bad as Satan himself.  So when the good doctor saw a lady about to give the woman some money, he informed her that the woman was not worthy of charity; the lady then thanked him for the warning, and the doctor warned the beggar to decamp, failing which he would have her arrested.  She did then abandon her post, and several days later he saw her come out of a house to empty a pail of suds in the gutter; he at once recognized her, and she perhaps him: end of story.

     Dr. Ross also reported other beggars: a blind man who could really see with one eye, and a weeping boy who claimed his mother was sick, but who, when the doctor offered to go see her, ran away.  For the doctor, it seems that there was in the city no such thing as genuine poverty, only fake beggars out to fleece the gullible public.  He assures the reader that some of the shabby, dirty, greasy-looking women ragpickers seen gathering rags and bones from the gutters would be out before night in their silks, and that they had money at interest in banks.  As for bone boilers, dog killers, horse skinners, hot corn vendors, and street singers – or at least a good many of them –  “their place is a good way out of town.”  It is no surprise, then, that he advises rural folk to keep to their countrified ways and not move to the city in hopes of wealth and fame, for city life is not all it’s cracked up to be.

     If I have lingered over Dr. Ross’s impressions of poverty in the city, it’s because I see in him an arch example of the honest, upright small-town and rural conservative, in this case an upstate New Yorker, who is baffled by the city’s complexities and ambiguities, and marshals against them his own middle-class prejudices and lack of comprehension.  Beggars are fakers, and there are ragpickers who are out on the town nightly in their silks (the equivalent of today's alleged "welfare queens").  He visits the Five Points, the city’s worst slum, and sees firsthand how its miserable inhabitants live, but attributes their poverty to crime and indolence.  Always, the fault lies with the poor, and never with the society they live in.  Rabid conservatives have always struck me as tight and prickly, and liberals as loose and gooey; Dr. Ross is tight and prickly.  (For an earlier take on this subject see post #18, Upstate vs. Downstate: The Great Dichotomy, July 20, 2012, accessible via Archives 2012.)

File:CanIHaveABeerMan.jpg
Alberto Gottardo

     These attitudes are alive and well today, and not just among the conservatives of the far right.  In many American cities laws are being enacted to criminalize homelessness.  Often it is against the law to sleep, camp, eat, sit, or beg in public places, with criminal penalties for violating these laws, sometimes with charges for room and board while jailed, failing to pay which results in further time in jail.  (Debtors' prisons are back.)  Some communities even have laws against feeding the homeless, which puts the authorities at odds with the churches.  So distasteful to the snug and prosperous is the sight of poverty, that they intend to banish it altogether from their well-scrubbed communities, which results in the crudest shantytowns located at a safe remove.  Unless, of course, the county takes action, too.



File:Helping the homeless.jpg
Ed Yourdon

    According to a 2006 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the twenty meanest U.S. cities, starting with the meanest of all, are as follows:

1.    Sarasota, FL
2.    Lawrence, KS
3.    Little Rock, AR
4.    Atlanta, GA
5.    Las Vegas, NV
6.    Dallas, TX
7.    Houston, TX
8.    San Juan, PR
9.    Santa Monica, CA
10. Flagstaff, AZ
11. San Francisco, CA
12. Chicago, IL
13. San Antonio, TX
14. New York, NY
15. Austin, TX
16. Anchorage, AK
17. Phoenix, AZ
18. Los Angeles, CA
19. St. Louis, MO
20. Pittsburgh, PA

This list is hardly complete.  From what I have learned recently, any number of other cities could be added to it.  So it goes in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

File:Sarasota FL Burns Court HD 430-01.jpg
Sarasota, Florida.  Cleaner than New York, and not a homeless in sight.
Ebyabe

File:Kindness meter ottawa 2011.jpeg
A Kindness Meter in Ottawa.
OttawaAC
     In Ottawa the civilized Canadians are trying another way to control begging, installing so-called Kindness Meters on the streets where people can deposit donations to help the poor.  This is part of an official effort to discourage panhandling and keep panhandlers from spending money on alcohol or drugs.  I’m not aware of any such meters in New York, but in Denver there are similar devices called Donation Meters.

     I must confess that I have always been tight with a buck.  Reinforcing this tendency was a comment long ago by a radio commentator who said that he had once followed a panhandler through the city streets for an hour, counting how many handouts he reaped.  He reaped forty, and assuming half were a dime and half a quarter, the panhandler made $7.00 an hour, which in those days was better than what many people earned by honest toil.  His conclusion: don’t give.  This was my rule for the longest time until, in the last year or two, for some mysterious reason I softened and began giving a quarter to almost any beggar who looked like he or she really needed it.  A quarter isn’t much, but I also greeted them in a friendly way, thus acknowledging their humanity, which may be just as important.  But I don’t judge others for their charity or lack of it; these are personal decisions, and some people prefer to give through organized charities rather than directly and haphazardly on the street.

     There are always interesting cases and exceptions.  I remember seeing a nun, or a woman garbed like a nun, entering a busy bar one night to be  quickly paid off by the bartender.  Catholic friends have since assured me that no bone fide Catholic nun would do such a thing.  The most they can do is sit in a public place, eyes down, with a receptacle for donations; they cannot approach or in any way importune passersby.  So beware of pushy nuns; they are imposters. 

File:Ajahn Outhai.jpg
The real McCoy.  He won't panhandle you.
Alexander S. Berger
     Likewise beware of Buddhist monks with shaved heads, beatific smiles, and flowing orange robes who wander the streets offering passersby their blessing and a tiny amulet, in return for which they request a donation.  This is a new phenomenon here in New York City, where they add an additional touch of color to the Elmos and Mickey Mouses and the Naked Cowboy working the crowds in Times Square.  When questioned by authentic Buddhists about their vocation and what order they belong to, they abruptly and silently depart.  The authentic Buddhists dismiss them as mere beggars and deplore their actions as undermining the credibility of genuine Buddhism.  The bogus monks appear to be Chinese, speak little English, and favor Mandarin with local accents from various provinces of China.  They are reported also in Canada, Hong Kong, and Australia.  In New York City there is no law against dressing like a monk and begging; but if they beg aggressively, then they can be arrested.

     Some beggars hope to solicit handouts by displaying amputated limbs, or diseased and twisted legs.  Personally, I find this offensive though, again,  it’s not against the law.  By way of contrast, a little old woman who years ago appeared regularly in the evening on the sidewalk outside Carnegie Hall registered the most pathetic and vulnerable look I have ever seen on a human face; hard of heart were those who failed to give her money.  Though she never spoke a word, she became a legend well known to concertgoers.  There were rumors that a limousine picked her up at the end of her stint on the sidewalk, but this too may be legend; I can’t confirm it.  What is certain is that she was a pro of pros, at the very top of her profession. 

     In quite another class is Robert McMahon, a bearded Vietnam vet in combat fatigues, his left arm missing and his right leg crippled, who panhandles motorists on Ocean Parkway in the Kensington neighborhood of  Brooklyn.  His nickname “Rambo” is scrawled on the back of his jacket, along with his years of service with the Marines and his two tours of duty – 1972 and 1973 – that saw heavy action.  His empty left sleeve is pinned to his shoulder, and he drags his crippled leg behind him.  When drivers stop  for a red light, he hobbles over to them and salutes, while holding a paper cup and a sign, “Vietnam vet.”  He rarely fails to collect, but any driver who spurns his appeal is assailed with a volley of oaths. 

     McMahon’s heroic image was abruptly impaired in 2010, when a New York Post photographer, discreetly watching him at the end of his day, saw the handicapped hero nimbly cross the seven lanes of Ocean Parkway and, a few blocks later, pull his allegedly amputated left arm out from under his jacket and use both hands to count his cash.  “I’ll put a bullet in the back of your head!” he yelled at the photographer, when he realized he was being photographed.  He has been arrested 20 times for disorderly conduct and “fraudulent accosting,” and his Vietnam service seems doubtful.  Years ago he was seen accosting motorists in a wheelchair with one leg tucked underneath him; since then the missing leg has miraculously reappeared, but the arm has vanished instead.  I don’t always trust what I read in the Post (and I read it rarely), but this account, reinforced with photographs, seems credible.  So maybe we could use another Dr. Ross today.  But come to think of it, the Post itself more than amply supplies this need.

     A panhandler of a different stamp was Eddie Wise, an enterprising black man from Harlem, the son of a four-times-convicted cocaine dealer, who died recently.  Eddie  preferred the term “hustler” to “panhandler,” and hustle he did on his chosen turf in the Fordham section of the Bronx, combining a distaste for regular employment, a gift for gab, and a talent for spotting small moneymaking opportunities.  On Webster Avenue he would courteously greet black customers in a liquor store, “Excuse me, sir.  No disrespect or harm.  Can you help a brother on your way out?”  But if the customer reached at once for his wallet, Eddie would say, “No, no.  I’ll wait till you come out.”  Wanting dollars, not quarters, Eddie had learned that a customer leaving the store with a liquor bottle was usually more generous.  On a good Friday night he could make $60 in three hours – far more than he could make in a regular job.  But it all depended on his skill with words.  “If you don’t know how to talk, you can’t hustle.”

     But Eddie did more than work the liquor store clientele for money.  On nearby East 189th Street between Webster and Park he helped people unload purchases from handcarts and put them in their car, endeared himself to locals with his cheerfulness and gossip (who’s back in jail, whose mother kicked him out), and for a small fee held parking spaces for motorists, feeding the meters until they returned from their shopping.  His hustling outfit included dark blue jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, and a worn leather jacket, while his hair pulled back in seven braids gave him the nickname “Braids.”

     Eddie’s life took a sudden new turn when, in 2004, exasperated by repeated arrests for panhandling, he consulted a Legal Aid attorney and asked if he could sue New York’s Finest.  As a result he became the lead plaintiff in a 2005 class action lawsuit accusing the New York Police Department of arresting at least 140 panhandlers, most of them in the Bronx, under an anti-panhandling law ruled unconstitutional in 1992.  The complaint had merit, so in 2006 the city agreed to pay him $100,001 if he would drop out of the case, which for that princely sum he was glad to do.  So a man who once ate out of garbage cans was waiting for $100,001  coming in one big fat check!  News of his bonanza  spread quickly through the neighborhood, where acquaintances caked out to him, “The one hundred thousand dollar man!” and passing motorists honked their horns.  But an employee of the liquor store where he hustled predicted, “In three months he’ll be broke.”  Indeed, years before he had received a hefty sum after his hand was crushed in an accident at work, only to spend it all in a matter of months, mostly on cocaine.  But this time, he vowed, would be different.

     When the city’s check arrived, he deposited it in a bank – for Eddie, a novel experience.  He then withdrew $400, shoved the bills deep in a front pocket, and to get safely home (home being his girlfriend’s apartment) allowed himself the unwonted luxury of a ride in a cab.  Over the next few days he bought clothes, gave handouts to fellow panhandlers and his grown daughter and two-year-old granddaughter, feasted on Chinese takeout at home while watching TV, and when tempted to go out and get some cocaine, told himself, “Don’t do it.  Don’t do it.  Don’t do it.”  But he missed the camaraderie of the other car-parkers, and the opportunities to display his skills as a hustler, so finally he went back to 189th Street, heard the gossip of the street, got hustled for handouts by old friends and, finding it wasn’t so much fun now, left.  Over the months that followed he stayed clean of cocaine, but since rumors abounded that he had blown all his money on drugs, he had the perfect answer when anyone on 189th Street asked him for money: “I ain’t got it, man.  I’m broke.  I spent it all on crack.”

     If Eddie’s story ended here, it would have a happy ending.  But when, in June 2013, he died at age 51 in the dank, rat-infested East 158th Street basement he shared with his wife, the medical examiner’s report said that he died of a brain-stem hemorrhage caused by acute cocaine intoxication and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.  He was penniless, having blown most of his money on crack.  He left a wife, a three-year-old daughter, and a newborn son, as well as one or more children by another woman.  “He wanted a better life,” said his widow.  “We had high hopes, but they never came through.”

     I have lingered on the story of Eddie Wise because I find it moving, because his life was the opposite of mine, and because Eddie was the quintessential New York street hustler.  His story shows the hustler’s joy and exuberance, his energy, his initiative, his love of street life, his living for the moment, his independence, his vulnerability, and the ultimate loss and heartbreak; not for him the bourgeois virtues of order, prudence, and responsibility.  For all his failings, Eddie was a real New Yorker.

     Source note:  For information about Eddie Wise I am deeply indebted to a 2007 New York Magazine article about him by Jennifer Gonnerman.

     A follow-up to post #43, Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo:  Still the post with the most views by far of all, it was published on January 20, 2013, and is accessible through the blog archive.  In it I told how my longstanding pen-pal relationship (since 2000) with an inmate named Joe in North Carolina led me to a consideration of man-boy relationships, a subject I knew nothing about.  Joe was serving a 20-year term – the maximum possible under the plea-bargain agreement – for multiple counts of indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature.  This resulted from a three-year consensual relationship with a young teen-ager named Allen (a fictional name).  Joe’s story so moved and angered me that I urged him to write his memoir.  This he did, with my help; it reads like a novel.  In the post I said that the earliest he could hope to be released was sometime in 2014. 
     It is now 2014 and Joe has been released.  He has even completed the obligatory three-month parole and is now a free man, if one is ever free when you have to register as a sex offender.  He has a full-time job and is adjusting well to freedom.  His last e-mail informed me that he just spent the weekend with Allen, now in his 30s, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years (with the exception of a court appearance where they glimpsed each other at a distance but couldn’t talk).  He says they talked for hours, updating each other on the last 20 years, and apart from that just cuddled and watched TV.  Good feelings, clearly, on both sides.  So much for the criminal justice system of North Carolina and its multiple counts of indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature.  The title of Joe’s memoir, by the way, is Crimes Against Nature.  He has a lot to say on the subject, even while telling a fascinating story.  A small press is now considering it (no big press would touch it); if that fails, there are other options.  Sooner or later it will be published.

     Coming soon:  The smells of New York (whew!); but they aren’t all bad, quite the contrary).  Then: brownstone and brownstones, the why and when of them, and inside, the delights and horrors of the Victorian parlor.  And then: Ralph Fasanella.  Never heard of him?  Well, he’s mentioned in last Friday’s Times, but I found him on my own. 

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder