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I Love New York
The dagger shaped island of Manhattan wedged between the East and Hudson rivers
is only a small part of the City of New York. When visitors come here for a week
or two, they walk through Rockefeller Center and tell you in no uncertain terms,
"I love New York!" New Yorkers don't believe them for a minute.
I know I don't. They haven't been to Brooklyn or the Bronx. "Little Saigon" in
Flushing is not on their itinerary, and if they were to spend the evening in
Bed/Stuy or Greenpoint, they would never say, "I love New York" with conviction
again. The love they have for New York City is restricted to certain sections in
the island of Manhattan. They go big for Soho, the shops along uptown Madison
Avenue, the hotels along Central Park South and the magical strip of Fifth
Avenue, Madison and Park from the Guggenheim to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
commonly called the "Upper East Side." They don't want to know New York any
better than that.
They think of New York as a fancy fair dancer in lace tights who’ll give them
the glad eye – they’ll think the world of her for a day or two. Then they’ll
drop her like a hot potato when it's time to go home.
The island of Manhattan is three dimensional. Few New Yorkers live, love, or
work at ground level. Most of them exist above the ground and the minority below
it. People who work in New York conduct their business in high rise office
buildings and rub elbows with people in the street only because they have to.
Those who inhabit the caverns below are rarely seen by people from out of town
and the New York working class as well.
A native New Yorker arriving at Pennsylvania Station at 33rd Street and 7th
Avenue can walk underground all the way to 53rd Street and 5th Avenue. In decent
weather he may choose to walk the streets above and do the two miles in twenty
minutes, but in bad weather he will stay below. He will not walk as the crow
flies. He will cover three miles without seeing the light of day. He will find
himself in dark places, damp basement corridors and subway passageways. The cave
men live down there, and like the cave men who preyed on the Eloi in "The Time
Machine" they prey on the street people from above.
It's cold in Manhattan in the winter, colder than International Falls – colder
than Moose Jaw. There is nothing quite so cold as a forty mile wind chilled by
the ice packed Hudson whistling cross town and racing through the mean streets
of Manhattan. It finds its way through the threadbare coat they gave you at St.
Vincent DePaul. You put up with it until Thanksgiving maybe, then the Christmas
crowds start coming and that's hard to take if you can still remember days gone
by. A cold of the soul .... the cold of absolute zero.
So you "Go Under." You soon learn where the warm walls are and if you still have
enough strength left, you will fight for a place to spend the night with your
back to a warm wall. The basement kitchens and hotel laundries are just on the
other side of the warm walls. You'll sleep all night in Elysium with a cardboard
box for a mattress.
Where do you wash up in the morning? You don't. Where do you void your bodily
wastes? Maybe they'll let you in the bus station men's room, if not then by
someone else's warm wall, not yours.
Night and day have no meaning down here. You know it's night when there are no
street people coming down from above. Daytime is preying time, that's when the
people from above are on their way to work or coming home, or staying out of the
rain and snow. Maybe you're not belligerent by nature, but you've learned the
art of confrontation .... you stand in their way .... breathe on them. Lower
your head and look them in the eye sideways.
"Gimme a quarter sucker"
"What’cha doon down here, lady?"
"What'cha got there chief .... a Sony?"
That's the art of intimidation. You learn to go far enough then stop. One step
more and the cops are on you and the next thing you know you're spending the
winter on Riker's Island. But if you go one step less, the visitors from above
will brush you off.
What's wrong with Riker's Island? Good question! Ever reach a point where you
don't want to go any lower than you are?
There's no other way. You can't walk up to someone and explain why you're down
here and how you're trying to cope with it and how a quarter might make all the
difference in the world. After a few failures you learn to work their pride, not
your pride, but Eloi pride. That's the pride that inhibits people from above
looking for a cop.
You can't get by in this world without money and in the shape you're in you're
not going to earn money, you're going to have to beg it or steal it.
If you read the fine print you'll find nothing that provides for people like
you. Nothing about tramps, bums and deadbeats. The beggar's community is the
same here as it is in every corner of the civilized world. You are tolerated
because it's easier and cheaper than trying to rehabilitate or house you. The
most society will do is give you a meal at the mission and maybe a cot for the
night in the dead of winter. But if you accept them you've lost your place by
the warm wall, your 'home'. Somebody else lives there now. Once you "go under"
it's best to stay under, live under, that's where the money is .... that's where
your friends are.
You call them friends. They're just people like you and it would be a lonely
place down here without them. You get to know each other .... know the ones you
can turn your back on. If you're smart though you'll trust nobody, sleep with
one eye open .... if you sleep at all. You can squeeze out a little money, you
can hustle ten bucks an hour if you keep at it. But you don't want too much.
You're a target if you take too much. You can get yourself in real trouble if
you have too much money on you.
You carry around this wallet from the old days .... you remember when it held a
driver's license, business cards and a picture of your wife. Now it's just a
ratty old piece of leather you keep your money in. At night, when your dozing by
your warm wall you stuff it in your crotch. All day yesterday you tried to
remember your name. You looked in your wallet and there was no name. It scared
you, didn't it? It's easy to forget who you are when there's no name in your
"Mommy, is that a bum over there?"
"Yes it is dear," said Lydia, "don't get too close to him now, stay here with
Daddy and me. Vernon, let's go back the other way."
Vernon and Lydia Krueger from Selmore, about fifteen miles south of Springfield
Missouri decided to spend Thanksgiving in New York with their little daughter
Peggy. The first thing they wanted to see was the subway. They didn't want to
ride on it they only wanted to see it so they could tell everybody when they got
home. The man in the booth told them it would cost six dollars for the three of
"Seems awfully steep," Vernon remarked to Lydia, "just to get in to see the
subway .... I thought it was a dime, if we want to come back, that'll be twelve
You watch them walking through the concourse. Rubes from out of town .... why
don't they stay home? They're the ones you have to watch out for. Don't know
enough to get rid of you with a quarter. Call for the cops the minute you hassle
them for money. Why would anyone bring a kid down here?
The pain in your stomach becomes unbearable. That's what you dread the most.
Nobody here’s gonna help you .... you're gonna die down here all alone. People
walking by – people from out of town and you're dying right here in front of
.... and who's gonna get your warm wall?
©Harry Buschman 1997
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