The word “hustler” has many meanings. It can mean a male prostitute, but publisher Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine is a monthly porn sheet that is blatantly, flagrantly heterosexual. In this post I take “hustlers” to mean people who promote themselves or something else aggressively. Hustlers of this variety are endemic in New York City and always have been. This city is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, from the Wall Street sharper to the sorriest, most down-and-out panhandler. In previous posts I’ve covered plenty of them, as for instance:
· Panhandlers (#143)
· Patent medicine men (#191)
· Andy Warhol (#108)
· Robert Moses, the master builder (#78)
· Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean (#81)
· Walter Winchell (#86)
· Fiorello La Guardia (#102)
· Norman Mailer (#139)
· Al Sharpton (#164)
Some might question one or another of these as examples of the hustler -- Andy Warhol, I’m told, had a very gentle manner -- but I think that each, in his or her own way, showed the aggressiveness typical of the species. Not included here, however, are the subway and sidewalk entertainers described in vignette #6; some of them may verge on hustling, but to label all such entertainers “hustlers” would be too inclusive, and unfair. The true hustler is usually pushy and often, though not always, offensive.
|Some of them do have imagination … and a sense of humor.|
An exuberant and especially gifted hustler was Jim Fisk (posts #44 and #61ff.), who graduated from Yankee peddler in Vermont to impresario and Wall Street robber baron, promoting himself and his wares -- whether calicoes or cancans or the stock of the near-bankrupt Erie Railway – with vigor and flair. And his successors, whether they’ve heard of him or not, flourish on Wall Street today. Wall Street is, and always has been, a nest of hustlers, a stewpot of greed. (And a few reasonably honest individuals as well, but who ever hears of them?) Which reminds me of what a Wall Streeter of some years back once said: “Aim for the stars and you get chorus girls. Aim for chorus girls and you get nothing.” Which goes a long way toward explaining the mental make-up of the hustler.
Have I ever been hustled? (And I don’t mean by male prostitutes, though there’s a recent exception.) Yes. Long ago, while dining in a New York restaurant with friends on Halloween, our table was approached by a young black kid who wanted money – a twisted variation of “trick or treat,” since he wore no costume and just wanted cash. How he even got in there I can’t imagine. In any case, we gave him nothing.
And once, returning from vacation, I was approached at Grand Central Station by another young black kid who opened a taxi door for me and for this needless act wanted a tip. The taxi driver told him to clear out, but, being in a good mood, I gave him a quarter.
On another occasion I saw a woman in a floor-length nunlike gown stride boldly into a bar and get, from an obliging bartender, a dollar or two, and then immediately leave – bound, no doubt, for other bars. She was, of course, a hustler, for no authentic nun would walk into a bar in quest of donations. In my experience a nun may sit quietly in a public place, eyes down, with a dish for donations, but she never solicits and rarely even makes eye contact with others. Long ago I used to see one in the subway, but now, come to think of it, I haven’t seen any for years.
Lately, getting soft of heart and head, I’ve often given to beggars if they look old and somewhat decrepit, but rarely if they look young and healthy, and never if they get pushy. In other words, never if they come on like a hustler.
And once, just a few weeks ago, I had a curious adventure. It was the night of my eye surgery, and with a big patch over my right eye I had gone to bed early, but an hour later I heard the hall door, which we never close tight, creak and squeak a bit, which told me someone had entered the apartment. Flashlight in hand and still half asleep, I went to investigate and found a young man in his mid- to late twenties just inside the door.
“I saw your door was open,” he explained. “I’m waiting for a friend. Would you mind if I used your bathroom?”
Being barely awake and not knowing everyone in the building, much less their friends, I said yes. Minutes later he called me into the bathroom, said that his belt was broken and asked if I could give him some rubber bands to fix it.
“Rubber bands?” I asked incredulously.
“Or some string,” he added.
Eager by now to get rid of him, I fetched both rubber bands and string. But when I returned to the bathroom he had dropped his pants enough to display the family jewels, a sight I could barely believe. My look of total disinterest must have registered, for he then announced, “I can do this in the hall,” and departed with the string. Anxious to prevent his return, I put a heavy wooden card table against the slightly open door, so if the door budged even a little, the table would fall with a crash. The night passed peacefully, and now it all seems like a dream.
Was my visitor a hustler in the broadest sense? Absolutely. And in the narrower sense, meaning a male prostitute? I assume so, but certainly not a professional, or he wouldn’t have wasted time on me, when he could have been hanging out where hustlers hang out and their patrons know to find them.
But enough of this amateur; let’s have a look at the pros. The subject has come up recently because Mayor de Blasio has talked of eliminating the pedestrian mall at Times Square and returning it to traffic – a proposal that alarms and dismays New Yorkers and visitors alike. The problem is hustlers, meaning in this case the costumed Elmos, red-suited with goggle eyes, and the armored Iron Men, big-eared Minnie Mouses (or Mice?), and brazen bare-breasted desnudas with wild feathered headdresses, all of whom have evidently been harassing tourists for tips, and hefty tips at that.
|Elmo and Minnie greeting Muslin women in headscarves.|
So who are these hustlers? For the most part, as noted in post #143 just a year ago, Latino immigrants willing to parade about in cartoon-character costumes that are stiflingly hot in the sticky summer heat, so they can stand beside children while their parents take photos, following which Elmo or Minnie wants a tip. Or topless Latinas with feathered headdresses, painted breasts, and thongs who pose with male tourists for photos and hope to extract twenty dollars or more. Costumed or near naked, Times Square hustlers usually speak little English, fear deportation if arrested, and would do something else if they could. Interviewed, a nineteen-year-old Nicaraguan Spider Man says he averages $9 an hour, better than he would do with a job, if he could get one.
In fairness, it should be noted that tourists with children often initiate contact with Spider Man or the Cookie Monster, and some desnudas insist that they don’t bother anyone, that being topless in New York isn’t illegal (true enough), and that it’s only a few of them who harass tourists and give them all a bad name. And let’s face it, these antics are a part of New York, they’re what bring tourists here eager to see something in the deliciously wicked city that you can’t find in Topeka or Des Moines. (No offense intended to Topeka or Des Moines, which are probably delighted not to be so graced.)
Let’s have a look at some other types of New York hustlers. In Brooklyn a few years ago young black gang members would jam the dollar-bill slot in MetroCard machines, so commuters couldn’t buy cards; then the hustlers would offer to get them through the turnstile by selling them an illegal swipe for a dollar or two, or for the same fee let them through a service gate. This being clearly illegal, arrests followed.
More controversial are the young black hip-hop artists who peddle their compact disks to passersby in Times Square. Often arrested for disorderly conduct and aggressive begging, the rappers claim that they aren’t breaking the law, that the police have it in for them, treat them differently from other vendors, and violate their First Amendment rights. The police insist that the rappers shove CDs at pedestrians, block the sidewalk, and follow potential customers down the street – allegations that the rappers claim are phony, causing their cases ultimately to get dismissed. Some of the rappers have been arrested thirty times, and in 2014 their exasperation reached the point where eight of them filed joint lawsuits in Manhattan Federal Court against the city and 17 policemen. How their lawsuit is playing out I don’t know, but these guys are spunky and innovative, tailoring their sales pitch to what people are wearing and how they look. They remind me of the squeegee men who used to clean the windshields of cars stopped for a red light, for which unsolicited service they hoped to get a tip.
|A squeegee man at work, albeit with no squeegee in evidence.|
Another species of hustlers are the Buddhist monks in orange robes who haunt the High Line, Bryant Park, and Times Square, pushing cheap amulets at passersby and expecting, even demanding, a tip. I saw one once on Sixth Avenue offering his trinkets right and left, but now they’re all over the city. When one on the High Line got five dollars from a visitor, the holy man protested, wanting twenty. Of course they are fakes, just like the nun I in the bar. Usually they are Chinese immigrants who return to flophouses in Flushing, Queens, with their day’s earnings, some of them doffing their robes en route on the subway, before setting out in khakis and Nike sneakers for a meal spiced with liquor in a local restaurant. Some have also been seen sneaking a smoke on the sly, or napping on ledges of the Fifth Avenue public library. Real Buddhist monks might carry a beggar’s bowl to receive gifts of money or food, but they would never aggressively solicit cash, and would shun cigarettes and alcohol. Authentic New York Buddhists are offended by these fakers, who disrespect the faith.
|Even in Hong Kong. Is it a franchise?|
An observer who recently surveyed the Times Square scene reported the aforementioned costume characters, topless cuties, CD hawkers, and bogus monks, but also these:
· Ticket hustlers who try to sell you tickets for comedy clubs, Broadway shows, and bus tours
· Coupon hustlers who thrust at you coupons for sandwiches, massages, and strip clubs
· The Naked Cowboy playing his guitar in his undershorts, now joined by scantly clad Naked Cowgirls likewise strumming guitars
· Statue people who stand stock still, spray-painted gold or silver or purple, including one or several Lady Liberties, sea-foam green replicas of the Statue of Liberty
· Religious hucksters parading about with signs urging REPENT! FOLLOW JESUS and similar messages, and buttonholing passersby to ask if they can tell you about their Savior
· A very middle-class-looking man in a jacket and tie, giving an intense deadpan stare and flaunting a sign TV IS BRAINWASHING
And some of them get into fights with one another, which should vastly enhance the entertainment of tourists.
|Kris from Seattle|
Another kind of hustler is the testosterone huckster. Is Low T making you feel like a shadow of your former self? asks the bold-face ad. The solution for low energy and low sex drive, this and other ads propose, is one or another prescription drug. U.S. sales of testosterone boosters, a mere $324 million in 2002, soared to about $2 billion in 2012. And in 2012 drug makers spent $107 million advertising top brand-name testosterone drugs in the U.S. “Low T” is now proclaimed a malady with symptoms like listlessness, increased body fat, and moodiness, and multitudes of 40-year-old males and up have been convinced that they need these drugs, the long-term effects of which have yet to be determined.
Should aggressive advertising like this be termed “hustling,” and its practitioners “hustlers”? All advertising involves a good bit of hustling, but the aggressiveness of testosterone marketing inclines me to say yes. Likewise the ubiquitous subway ads, big and colorful, of Dr. Zizmor, a Manhattan-based dermatologist with unblemished features, who promises “beautiful, clear skin.” I would label all today’s medical hustlers a new phenomenon, if their ads didn’t echo the blatant claims of the nineteenth-century patent medicine men, who, unlike today’s hucksters, didn’t have a legitimate degree in medicine.
|Ernie in later years.|
A different kind of hustler that I have just read about online haunted neither Times Square nor Bryant Park nor any other park, but only the city’s bowling alleys. Back in the 1960s those alleys were jammed all night with bowlers and the cigar-puffing gamblers, some of them gangsters, who bet on the games. It was the time of action bowling, a high-stakes form of gambling in which bowlers, often only in their teens, played for thousands of dollars. The king of the scene was an arrogant kid from Manhattan’s West Side named Ernie Schlegel, a real New York wiseguy with scraggly blond hair who favored black stovepipe pants, a white silk shirt, and an iridescent raincoat. Before he bowled, he’d have one drink and then throw a shot of bourbon on his head or down his neck, so that he reeked of liquor, and his opponents became overly confident, thinking he was drunk. The result? “I crushed ’em.” Working weekdays as a stock boy at a watch store, he earned $42.50 a week, but in a single night of bowling he could pocket hundreds, and once even $7,800, in cash. Little wonder that, drooping with exhaustion at work, he quit before they could fire him. His parents disapproved, until he showed them his earnings -- wads of cash stuffed in his bureau drawers.
Once the other bowlers got wise to his tricks, Ernie’s hustling days were over. It was years before the PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) let him join their tours, but in 1976 he toured the nation with them as the Bicentennial Kid, wearing a white jumpsuit decked with blue sequins, red-white-and-blue shoes, and aviator sunglasses. After that he went on to win legitimately a series of titles in bowling matches and become a PBA Hall of Famer. But he still had his New York chutzpah, declaring “I am the greatest!” and promising to take on any challenger and “beat the living daylights out of him!” An unrepentant hustler, but one who finds time to coach young bowlers, too.
Some of the bowling hustlers were not above out-and-out cheating. They would drill a hole in a bowling ball, pour mercury in, and plug the hole with a liquid that hardened overnight. As the “loaded” ball rolled, the mercury would shift in the ball, making it go sideways and topple more pins. When some of the gangsters who bet on the games discovered that one bowler was throwing a loaded ball, they took the offender outside, flattened him on the ground, held his bowling bowl high above their heads, and smashed his hand with it, so that he never bowled again. Another bowler, having bet on himself to lose, learned that some gun-toting gangsters had bet on him to win, and so he faced a dilemma: he could win and lose his bet, or he could lose and risk the wrath of the gangsters. But never underestimate the resourcefulness of a hustler. Getting up to throw the next ball, he grabbed his chest, faked a heart attack, and collapsed. Taken away in an ambulance, he lived to bowl another day.
I hesitate to label political wannabes hustlers, since campaigning requires a good deal of aggressive self-promotion. But among today’s Republican wannabes one goes beyond the bounds, breaks all the rules, and merits the name of hustler: Donald Trump. New Yorkers – meaning residents of the city or the state – have rarely made it to the White House, with the exception of two, both of whom bore the magical name of Roosevelt. The others failed for one of two reasons: they struck Middle America as either too brash or too suave, and probably of dubious morality as well. Trump is the epitome of brash, a thrice-married, rude New Yorker who has lived all his life in Gomorrah, meaning New York City. Similarly, Rudolph Giuliani failed in the 2008 primaries and caucuses, when mainstream Republicans saw in him a brash and bullying New Yorker who had likewise been married two times too many.
|Can a hustler become President? Time will tell.|
As for suave, the rich and sophisticated Nelson Rockefeller failed to get the Republican nomination in 1964, being seen as too Eastern establishment, too urban and urbane, and divorced as well, and married to a divorced woman. And in the 1970s John Lindsay, a Republican turned Democrat, lost out because he struck mainstream voters as too smooth, too big-city sophisticated, too to-the-manner-born, too bright, and I’d almost add too handsome, too dapper. Hustlers or not – and Rockefeller and Lindsay certainly weren’t hustlers – New Yorkers just can’t cut it with the great masses of voters who decide presidential elections.
So who are the New York hustlers? People who are desperate but resourceful, and too full of energy to give up. People who are driven, who have to do, who can’t stand still. And why do they hustle? For money, for excitement, for power, and for glory. Whatever you think of them, New York wouldn’t be New York without them. But if you encounter them, hang on to your wallet and your wits.
Note on sources: Information on New York hustlers is available from numerous sources online. For action bowling, I am especially indebted to a 2012 article by Gianmarc Manzione, who interviewed many of the action bowlers in their later years or quoted from earlier interviews.
An update: When walking on 42nd Street near Times Square the other day, I saw an African-American couple negotiating with a fake Buddhist monk who seemed to be offering a trinket. “He’s a fake,” I whispered as I walked briskly by. They flashed a smile; perhaps they didn’t care. And when, a bit later, I made a quick foray into Times Square, I didn’t see a single Elmo, a single Spider Man or Minnie. Either they were off duty or, aware of the Mayor’s diatribe, they were lying warily low. But they are still around, and a coalition of elected officials, property owners, and business leaders has proposed, as a solution for the Times Square mess, three different zones: activity zones for hustlers; civic zones for public events or special programs; and flow zones where pedestrians can pass through freely, without being harassed. Confined to activity zones, the hustlers would not be allowed to operate elsewhere. Will it come to pass? Who knows?
Coming soon: Roughriders on West 44th Street, posing two pertinent questions: (1) What percentage of our thoughts are negative? (2) Should a successful single businesswoman of 38 with international experience get a dog or starting looking for a husband? Plus a side glance at a candidate who went to bed thinking he was the president elect, and woke up to learn that he wasn’t.
My new book: Many thanks to those of you who have ordered it, and no problem with those who have not; it will find its readers. The cheaper e-book will soon be available.
© 2015 Clifford Browder