Bums of New York
This is a piece I wrote for my Writing for Magazines class at NYU. I'm hoping to submit this to the New Yorker.
The Bums of Fifth Avenue
Fifth Avenue. The gilded avenue. The street that the Rockefellers, the Trumps, Harry Winston, and Brooks Brothers all call home. But right in the middle of New York’s most exclusive addresses and the spotless windows of fashionably tressed mannequins and gold plated signage of a number of jewelry stores, sits “George” the bum. He’s in the middle of reading today’s Financial Times of London newspaper. He sits in front of the gated stoop of the un-leased property adjacent to my office; relaxing with a cup of coffee, his leg sprawled out from under the unmistakable pink papering reviewing headlines. The VERY same one that gets delivered to my office front.
One block over at the 53rd and 5th street E/V train station is “Karl”. Karl gets the times too, but not as regularly as George. He doesn’t have a stoop to swipe from; instead he grabs the papers left on the station platform from hurried commuters. Karl always has something to say on marriage, divorce, abortion, and relationships. He stands on the top of the long escalator and staircase – his booming voice extrapolating on the “real” reasons women want to get married: “Marriage is a woman’s way of deceiving the man.”
These fellows, and occassionally ladies, are the true residents of Fifth avenue. Rudy Giuliani may have done a phenomenal job clearing Times Square of the prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and peep shows, but he still hasn't manage to shake New York of the truly characteristic New York bums. According to sources, there didn't appear to be a migration from the areas that have been "cleaned" up. Squatters are simply more mobile nowadays. The panhandlers that inhabit the Fifth were the same ones 15 years ago. New faces tend to pick a spot near Fifth avenue, usually by the subway station or in front of the church, and simply stay. But, from my one year working on Fifth, I've idealized the notion of Fifth Avenue's "income challenged occupants". In my own head, it is my hope was that Fifth Avenue's underclass is somehow different. I imagined that in a past life they were high achievers -- knocked down by the challenges of life and an unfortunate turn of events.
A View from the Top
I talked to "Coney", the security guard usually on duty across the street my office. He works the rear entrance to the MoMA. Coney is an older bispectacled black man in his 50's that reminds me of a shorter, thinner, but similarly jocular Al Roker. Coney has been working at the MoMA for 20 years keeping watch on the row of townhouses adjacent to the posh gargoyled University Club on the corner of 5th and 54th. I usually see him relaxing on the shift on a lawn chair joking with fellow security guards and occassionaly the odd German tourist. He knows all the characters that inhabit the avenue.
"I've been working here for 15 years and I've seen them all. I've seen daughters who had been thrown out by their fathers who worked on Fifth avenue just pick a corner to show their daddy what's up," exclaims Coney. He tells me of several other squatters who I hadn't seen before. One in particular, named "Firefly" who got his nickname because he would light up small fires right on Fifth Avenue for fun. Another was a millionaire who kept all his money in his many various squatholes.
I'm more intrigued with, Karl the thunder voiced sharp tongued inhabitant (or irritant) of the 53rd and 5th E/V subway station. Karl is usually unshaven, his hair suprisingly well maintained. He wears brown leather workboots, dirty dark pants, a trench coat. But his eyes give away his nature as a jokster while his voice has a professorial quality -- if he had something cogent to say he certainly would belong on a lecturn instead of pontificating at the top of the subway escalators. Most mornings, commuters are greeted by a tirade from Karl on his favorite subject: women. "Never trust a woman. A woman bleeds for a whole month but doesn't die, would you trust that?.." was what Karl bellowed at the top of his lungs one morning. Usually his comments get a couple chuckles and head shaking from busy commuters.
"Karl is from Long Island," Coney says, "He was an undergrad at NYU, but he never finished his fourth year. He was real educated. When he dropped out of school, his momma made him leave the house and find a job. He got a job for a while as a electrician. He'd install the electronics for water heating systems for buildings...made good money. One day, he came back home because he didn't care for the work, just didn't like it. His momma called the police on him, you know, just to scare him into going back out. But the police beat him, from then on he never trusted another woman. A couple years ago he got hit by a car, after that he was never the same."
"Bob" also had problems with his mother and his inlaws. He sits on the steps of St. Thomas Church flanked by a Duane Reade bag filled with papers, a manila folder, and some small articles of clothing. He's a wiry albino African American man, decked out in a ragged pair of Chuck D sneakers, stained black denim jeans, a blue t-shirt covered in brown and yellow stains, and a leather jacket. At first I was offput by his tendency to look past me when he talked to me, but I later discovered he was actually crossed eyed, they literally looked in opposite directions. His mouth was lined with two rows of gapped crevaces of yellow teeth. Somehow in that motley assortment of random clothing he managed to top his fashion medley with a trendy green Von Dutch trucker hat. As I talked to him, spittle dribble down his his unshaven chin uncontrollably, collected on the front of his shirt and on his rather nice leather jacket. While we talked on the steps passerbies periodically dropped one dollar and five dollar bills into his hat.
I think I was attracting some good business.
"I'm from North Plainfield, NJ, where my mom's house is. I had an apartment in the Bronx when I got married. Worked as an electrician for NBC, before I got sick. My wife and I had a joint account and when I was sick she and my in-laws took everything. I was out in street within a year and now I'm just trying to live day to day." When I asked him if he had any relatives, he responded, "My brother used to live in the Bronx, but he got shot last February. So that's it."
Despite everyone having their own set of "problems", the community of squatters appears to be tight. Bob, George, and Karl all had Easter dinner last year at the Presbyterian church on 50th and 7th. There Karl actually got on the podium and told his story to a crowd of ministers, church volunteers, and fellow "residents" of Fifth avenue.
When asked why didn't he simply go to a shelter, he said, "Its dangerous! I've had my locker broken into. They took my walkmen, my watch, all my clothes...some money taken right out of my locker. You leave your things out, someone will take it, most definitely."
They're not fallen millionaires, lawyers, or professors as I had imagined, but it intrigued me in the same way that "Taxi Cab Confessions" made me wonder. But Fifth Avenue wasn't a part of their descent into the underclass. Rather it was marriage, work, family -- normal aspects of everyday human life that broke them.
I promised Bob I'd buy him a couple hot dogs for his troubles. As I walked up to his set of steps I noticed the sight of my speaking to him had attracted confused tourists. I saw a young tourist making conversation with him. In the seconds I had taken to run to the corner ofthe hot dog stand, Bob had become an instant celebrity.
"You know who you remind me of, " his eyes lit up in epiphany as I handed him the goods, " Norm Chow!"
"Why's that," I said not knowing who Norm Chow is.
"You know, the head coach at USC! You can see now at UCLA! Hey good luck and I'll see you on television!"
Norm Chow? He was in line to be head coach of UCLA's football team a couple weeks ago. He must have gotten the job. It had completely skipped my mind.
See, these guys may not being making six figures, but they definitely don't let anything slip by ion the news. Fifth Avenue is occcupied by the upper crust, its true. They might not be blue bloods, but the bums of Fifth Avenue are surely the upper crust of the squatter class.
(Something on how life have dealt them a wrong hand, COME UP WITH SOMETHING THAT IS A TAKEAWAY)
(Explore, wife or mothers that drive them into poor) Make a point that if I had talked to a woman bum, it'd be different.