Eddie Wise is one of those rare New Yorkers who have perfected the art of making a living without holding a job. He’s been called a panhandler, a mooch, a beggar, a bum, but he prefers the term hustler, which he inherited from his father, Fast Eddie, a Harlem coke dealer who made four trips to state prison, his last one at age 62. Every hustler has his area of expertise, and Eddie’s lies in his ability to coax bills out of the pockets of passersby. On Friday nights, his skills are on display in front of North End Liquors on Webster Avenue in the Bronx. “Excuse me, sir. No disrespect or harm. Can you help a brother on your way out?” If the customer reaches into his pocket, Eddie stops him: “No, no. I’ll wait till you come out.” He is not interested in quarters; he wants dollars. And he’s found that waiting until the customer exits the store, liquor bottle in hand, tends to increase the size of the donation. On his best nights, Eddie can make $60 in three hours. “My prayer book is my mouth, the way I talk to get my money,” he says. “If you don’t know how to talk, you can’t hustle.”
Eddie is 45 years old and almost always wears the same outfit: dark-blue Maurice Malone jeans (a gift from someone who works in the neighborhood), two hooded sweatshirts, a beat-up pair of Air Jordans, and a ten-year-old leather jacket with a broken zipper. He keeps his hair pulled back in seven braids, which is how he acquired his nickname: Braids. Though he’s only five foot five and is missing a front tooth, he likes to say he resembles Latrell Sprewell. “If my teeth weren’t out, you’d think I look just like him,” he says. Some people assume Eddie is homeless, but he hasn’t been homeless for about fifteen years. At night, he stays at his girlfriend’s apartment.
He has worked as a school aide, a security guard, a warehouse laborer, and, for five months, a National Guardsman, but for the past two decades he has spent most of his time piecing together an income from donations and tips of one sort or another. Every morning, six days a week, he would set a quota for himself—usually $30 or $40—and he wouldn’t stop working until he made it. “You can’t sit in the house all day thinking money is going to come to you,” he says. “You gotta go to the money.”
In December 2006, after all these years of hustling on the streets of New York, Eddie made the score of a lifetime. The city offered to pay him $100,001 if he dropped a lawsuit he’d filed against the police on behalf of himself and other panhandlers who’d been wrongly arrested. He agreed, and now he is about to go from scratching out a living, a dollar or two at a time, to collecting a six-figure check, an amount that would take him a decade to earn if he kept on hustling.
The news spread quickly through the Fordham section of the Bronx. Walking the streets, Eddie heard acquaintances call out “The $100,000 Man!” Locals drove down 189th Street, hitting the horn and shouting his name. Soon, everyone started debating what Eddie was going to do with the money. “In three months, he’ll be broke,” says an employee from North End Liquors as he walks by. “I got bets on it.” Predictions like this one do not sit well with Eddie. “Everybody in the neighborhood is thinking that it’s going to be gone, that I’m going to be broke pretty soon,” he says. “Talking about, I’m going to spend $100,000 on crack. I’ll be dead by then! What do I look like, a stupid fool?”
But if you were a betting man, you too might lay odds against him. After all, Eddie had blown a second chance once before. In the early nineties, when he was working as a deliveryman, he got a hefty payment after his hand was crushed by a six-foot roll of paper. By Eddie’s own admission, the money—tens of thousands of dollars, he recalls—was gone in a matter of months, much of it used to buy cocaine. He says he spent up to $1,000 a day, smoking and sniffing so much that he began hallucinating and blood poured from his nose.
The six-figure check coming his way offers the promise of better days, but it’s also shaping up to be a test of his character, his determination not to smoke crack again, his financial savvy, and his ability to imagine a different sort of future. Whenever he is on the street, standing around with his friends, he acts confident. “I know what I’m doing,” he says. “My last name’s not Wise for nothing.” Other times, though, when he is by himself and feeling more subdued, he sounds less certain.