Urban Druid: New York Street Vendors Then and Now
THE PRETZEL MAN
Passing through Astor Place near Cooper Union recently, the change was apparent. I felt blue. Old New York is almost gone. Native New Yorkers are gone. How squeaky clean and sterile it has become. But, Astor Place? How did they find it? Even my favorite street vendor the Pretzel Man had been chased. I missed the ribbing. The running jokes.
Remembering the last time I’d seen him: I rarely eat street vendor food, but my body was craving salt. As I walked past his pretzel stand on the corner, I caved. The aroma made it irresistible. The vendor took a napkin, picked a pretzel off the hot stones and held it out to me:
“Five Dollars!?! Do I look like a metro-sexual, hedge-fund, hipster-faced tourist to you!!???!! I’m born on this f@$king island. I was shaking down merchants like you, as a teenager in the Bronx, while your mother was sponge bathing you in a third-world puddle!”
He smiled… the sun glancing off a golden tooth: “My boss has a beddy beddy big house.”
“Yeah? Well, if your boss were here right now, I’d make his a$$-hole beddy beddy big with my shoe.”
With a snap, I broke off half the pretzel, handed him 3 dollars, and walked on. I could still hear his cackling laugh echoing as I waited to cross Broadway. Refusing to turn around… I did not want him to see me smiling…
… I wonder what ever became of him…
Passing the man I see often on the corner. A black man. Homeless. Freezing cold. Writhing in pain. One pant leg rolled up revealing a bloodless gaping gash exposing white shinbone. He groans and sways back and forth. I’m not sure if it’s the cold, or his wound, that torments him. Eyes squeezed shut. Tears streaming. Authentic tears.
I stop in front of the man as I occasionally do, putting a buck in his cup. No longer do I offer solutions. He doesn’t want solutions. He wants no ambulance. He wants cash.
On the corner is a brand new kiosk selling newspapers, overpriced gum and breath mints to newly arrived ‘suits’ (pushing native lower-income New Yorkers out of Upper West Side apartments) on their way to the brand new mall-like subway station at 96th Street and Broadway. The vendor in the kiosk always watches me. As I turn the corner this time he stops me:
“Why do you geev heem money? He’s fakeenk.”
I stop. Frozen in my tracks.
“Faking!?!” I say. “Are you kidding me? That guy sits there 5 or 6 hours a day doing that. Do you know how hard it is to keep that up?”
I’m livid. I feel an affinity for this homeless American and I’m voicing it.
“You’re in your cozy little kiosk… come out here and sit on the cold concrete and whine and moan for several hours… in the wind… and let me put a deep gash in your leg, to boot! Faking??? That man comes from people in this country 400 years. You just got here! A generation ago you were a Bedouin in the desert! You sit high up in your kiosk all day looking down on him? This guy is WORKING. Harder than you! Sitting in the cold exposing a severe wound.”
The vendor doesn’t argue with me. He says nothing. Only shaking his head as if to say: “American fool.”
It reminds me of a Middle-Eastern friend who once told me that people in her country think of Americans as those big overweight silly people jumping up and down on game shows.
I told her, “Maybe so, just don’t piss them off. They might scale the cliffs at Normandy and liberate concentration camps… as big and dopey and silly as they are.”
As I cross West 96th Street, I picture myself alongside the black man with the bum leg… 20 years younger, doing things just like that …