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 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

     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
     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.)

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.

File:Kindness meter ottawa 2011.jpeg
A Kindness Meter in Ottawa.
     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


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